Nasa counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

Nasa counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

The powerful rocket is needed to propel the payload, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, to the sun.

The car-sized probe, which will fly closer to the sun than any other man-made object, is set to blast off at 3:33am eastern daylight time (8:33am BST) from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 11.

NASA scientists also hope to answer one ongoing mystery: why the sun's atmosphere is 300 times hotter than the surface itself.

The shield should enable the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the centre of our solar system, coming within 6.16 million kilometres of the Sun's surface. This historic event will send the probe "to touch the Sun", the space agency says, which anticipates setting a new "fastest spacecraft" speed record. The probe, which is described as the size of a small vehicle, features a 4.5-inch thick carbon fiber and foam shield that will help protect the spacecraft from the Sun's intense heat. The spacecraft eventually will run out of fuel and, no longer able to keep its heat shield pointed toward the sun, will burn and break apart - except perhaps for the rugged heat shield.

Even in a region where temperatures can reach more than a million deg F, the sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 deg F (1,371 deg C).

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"The coolest, hottest mission, baby, that's what it is", said Nicola Fox, the project scientist at Johns Hopkins University. During its closest solar approaches, the spacecraft will hurtle through the corona at 430,000 miles per hour (690 kph), setting a speed record. The 91-year-old scientist will be present to view the launch when the spacecraft takes off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And it is like never before; thanks to its revolutionary heat shield which is capable of withstanding 1,370 degrees Celsius.

"The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before", Parker Solar Probe scientist Adam Szabo said in a statement.

Tools on board will measure high energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun.

The probe will travel at 430,000 miles an hour, faster than any spacecraft in history, and use Venus's gravity over the course of seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the sun.

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