Historic NASA mission will be first to 'touch the sun'

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The probe is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

The launch window for the Parker Solar Probe opens at 3:33 a.m. ET Saturday. It is expected to approach the sun in 2024.

Understanding more about solar activity could help scientists forecast the large eruptions from the sun that pose a threat to satellite and communications systems.

Its mission is to help scientists unlock the mysteries of the sun's atmosphere and answer questions like why its corona, the outermost layer of the solar atmosphere, is hotter than its surface.

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The last time a man-made object came close to the star's surface was in 1976 when Helios 2 achieved perihelion, point of the orbit at which it was closest to the sun, at 27 million miles.

Poking out over the heat shield, an instrument known as the Faraday cup will take measurements of the solar winds, a flow of ionised gases from the sun that streams past Earth at a million miles per hour.

Scorching, yes? But if all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 deg F (29 deg C).

Scientists have had to take great care to make sure that the Parker Solar Probe doesn't burn up in the process of conducting its important science.

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The project was proposed in the year 1958 to a brand-new Nasa, and "60 years later, and it's becoming a reality", said project manager Andy Driesman, also of Johns Hopkins, which designed and built the spacecraft. Perhaps the best part is that Parker, the first living person to have a mission named for him, will watch the mission he pioneered lift off, too.

"It was just a matter of sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner 2 spacecraft showed that, by golly, there was a solar wind", Parker said earlier this week. Despite skepticism, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft proved Parker right in 1962.

During its elliptical orbit, the Parker Solar Probe will make it up to 430,000mph, which would be a new speed record.

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 goal is to collect data and images on the sun's atmosphere, called the "corona", Engadget reports.

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When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - 700,000kmh - making it the fastest human-made object.

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