Soon, a new mission will swoop toward the sun. It won’t be Helios’ chariot. It won’t be Ra traveling on his solar barques.

Instead, it will be the first spacecraft to study the sun up close. In the past, NASA and other space agencies have studied the sun through observational satellites like WIND or SOHO. Parker Solar Probe will be the first craft to travel into the corona.

Wait, what? How?

Parker Solar Probe Artist rendering of Parker Solar Probe. Image credit: NASA

Parker Solar Probe will perform its scientific investigations in a hazardous region of intense heat and solar radiation. The spacecraft will fly close enough to the Sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly though the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles.

In order to unlock the mysteries of the Sun’s atmosphere, Parker Solar Probe will use Venus’ gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. The spacecraft will fly through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.8 million miles to our star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before. (Earth’s average distance to the Sun is 93 million miles.)

What will it do?

The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. Scientists have sought these answers for more than 60 years, but the investigation requires sending a probe right through the 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit heat of the corona. Today, this is finally possible with cutting-edge thermal engineering advances that can protect the mission on its dangerous journey. Parker Solar Probe will carry four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

Why the sun?