NASA recently tweeted some teasers that it’d have quite the announcement about next year’s mission to send a spacecraft into the outer atmosphere of the sun. As it turns out, they’ll be sending The Solar Probe Plus spacecraft, but they’ve just now renamed it to the Parker Solar Probe.
The name comes from Eugene N. Parker, the astrophysicist who predicted the supersonic solar wind—a barrage of charged particles ejected by the sun at more than a million miles per hour. This is the first time that a NASA mission carries the name of a living scientist and it’s the first time NASA will get this close to the sun.
The spacecraft is set to launch next year on an elliptical trajectory that will take it within Mercury’s orbit. Repeated flybys of Venus will act as a gravitational brake to bring it closer to the sun, so it will eventually dive within four million miles of the surface while accelerating to 430,000 miles per hour. Whoa.
The surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees fahrenheit but about 1,300 miles above the surface, temperatures in the sun’s atmosphere (the corona) rise to an infernal 3.5 million degrees. Scientists still don’t totally get the heating process—or why the corona is hotter than the surface. They know that the corona powers the supersonic solar winds, but there’s a lot more to figure out.
The Parker Solar Probe, which will be far enough away that it will experience temperatures of only thousands instead of millions of degrees, will measure electrical and magnetic fields, catalog the ingredients of the solar wind and photograph the corona.
Then, by 2025, after 24 orbits and 24 swoops through the corona, scientists will hopefully have some answers.
Until then, people are taking to Twitter to suggest passengers they’d like NASA to send into the searing heat…