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The 233-foot tall probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

NASA is set to launch the first space mission to enter the sun's corona, with the launch slated for Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The big picture: The Parker Solar Probe stands out for just how close to the sun it plans to reach: less than 3.82 million miles away. By comparison, we live a comfortable 93 million miles away from our solar system's star. Assuming a successful launch, the probe will also become the fastest-moving man-made object ever, traveling at 340,000 miles per hour.

Why it matters: At a press conference on Thursday, project scientist Nicola Fox said that engineers and scientists have been waiting 60 years to be able to develop the right technology to build this type of probe. "We know a lot about the sun," she said, but there are key mysteries that will be unsolvable until a spacecraft can reach closer to its surface.

For example, Fox said:

"The corona that we all saw during the total solar eclipse is 300 times hotter than the surface of the sun, and we want to figure out why that’s happening. Why is this atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating away from the star?"

Answering these questions will improve scientific understanding and also help build resiliency on Earth against volatile space weather.

  • The probe also honors by name Eugene Parker, a 91-year-old solar astrophysicist who developed meaningful (but initially rejected) theories about the solar corona, solar wind and the magnetic fields between Earth and the sun.
  • Parker is the first namesake of a mission to be alive at the time of launch, NASA said.

How it works: The probe will encounter incredibly hot temperatures of up to 2,500°F as it travels close to the sun, and extremely cold temperatures on the other end of its orbit as it travels near Venus. Most of the probe is shielded by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon composite foam material "umbrella" that will keep it at tolerable operational temperatures.

But other parts of the probe will be exposed directly to whatever temperature extremes the spacecraft passes through. Fox said the solar probe cup, which "peeps around the heat shield" is the "bravest" piece of the probe. It's made materials like molybdenum, niobium and tungsten.

Image: Greg Stanley/Johns Hopkins University

The details: The probe is set to launch at 3:33 AM on Saturday aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, but there's a 65 minute launch window in case conditions are not ideal.

  • The probe is 233 feet tall, making it almost as tall as a football field is long. It will gradually shed layers as it travels into outer space. At launch, it weighs approximately 1,400 pounds.
  • In all, the project has been a long time coming, with thousands of dedicated workers that, by project manager Andy Driesman's calculations, have worked more than 4 million hours over ten years.
  • You can watch the launch live on NASA TV here.

Go deeper

DOJ cites discrimination in lawsuit against Texas over voting districts

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Justice on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas, alleging Republican state lawmakers discriminated against Black and Latino voters and has "again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans" when they approved new redistricting maps.

Why it matters: A DOJ assessment of the new districts found that they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

3 hours ago - World

Biden to warn Putin U.S. will add troops in Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

Putin meets Biden in Geneva. Photo: Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty

President Biden will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin when they speak on Tuesday that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank," a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: The administration believes it's increasingly likely that Putin will order an invasion.

4 hours ago - World

U.S. announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

An Olympic-themed sculpture in Beijing on Dec. 1. Photo: Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

The U.S. announced Monday that it will not send officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Why it matters: The diplomatic boycott — which won't prevent American athletes from competing — marks a major escalation between the U.S. and China amid already heightened tensions over the CCP's treatment of Muslim minorities, military threats to Taiwan and economic tariffs.

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