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Last summer people across North America were captivated by one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena: a total solar eclipse. Some traveled thousands of miles to witness the blotting out of the sun’s light, if only for a few moments. When the moon passes in front of our star, we can glimpse a rare sight: the outer atmosphere of the sun.

Known as the corona, this shimmering haze encircling our star is the target of NASA’s next space mission. In the predawn hours of August 11 the Parker Solar Probe will launch on a first-of-its-kind journey to reach out and touch the sun. The spacecraft will fly through our star’s outer atmosphere, scooping up particles and taking measurements that scientists hope will solve the mystery of how the sun’s corona gets so hot.

Perched atop a Delta 4–Heavy rocket, the Parker Solar Probe will race up from Earth and, with seven gravity assists from Venus (and a boost from the rocket’s special upper stage), become the fastest spacecraft ever flown, reaching a top speed of 430,000 miles per hour at its closest approach to the sun in December 2024. That would be fast enough to travel between New York and Los Angeles in just 20 seconds. As part of a carefully choreographed orbital ballet, the probe will complete 24 orbits around our star over some eight years, getting as close as a mere 3.8 million miles from the sun’s surface—seven times closer than any other spacecraft in history and well within the coronal boundary, which extends somewhere between 15 to  20 solar radii (or some 6.4 million to 8.6 million miles) out from its surface. From this vantage point the probe will use its set of four instrument suites to analyze solar particles and plasma as well as electric and magnetic fields within the corona.

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Category: Science