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NASA prepares to dispatch a probe to the sun’s scorching atmosphere

NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun, enduring wicked heat while zooming through the solar corona to study this outermost part of the stellar atmosphere that gives rise to the solar wind.

The probe will fly through and study the sun’s atmosphere, where it will face punishing heat and radiation. At its closest, it will come within 6.1 million kilometres of the sun.

“A lot of people don’t think that’s particularly close,” said Nicola Fox, the project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe. “But if I put the sun and the Earth in the end zones in a football field, the Parker Solar Probe will be on the four-yard line in the red zone, knocking on the door for a touchdown.”

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Named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker — the first living researcher to receive such an honour — the probe will travel in the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona. Because it isn’t very dense, the corona is difficult to study. The only time we can see it is during a solar eclipse, or with a specially made instrument called a coronagraph, which blocks out the sun’s light.

“To send a probe where you haven’t been before been ambitious. To send it into such brutal conditions is highly ambitious,” Nicola Fox, a project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, told a news conference on Friday.

The previous closest pass to the sun was by a probe called Helios 2, which in 1976 came within 43 million km. The distance of the earth from the sun is approximately 149.6 million km.


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