NASA is flying a $2 billion spacecraft into the sun — here's why

NASA will soon launch its Parker Solar Probe on a mission that will take it closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history. The probe will fly straight into the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the corona, where violent storms erupt that could destroy our tech-driven way of life. If we want to avoid living like people did back in the Stone Age, we’ll need Parker Solar Probe’s data. Following is a transcript of the video.

NASA is about to go where no one has gone before. The Sun. That’s right.NASA is flying a$US1.5 billion ($AU2.03 billion) spacecraft into the hottest, most violent object in our solar system. All in the name of science.

NASA’s unmanned Parker Solar Probe will come to within3.83 million milesof the solar surface. Now, that might not sound very close but it’s about SEVEN TIMES closer than any spacecraft has gone before. And puts the probe smack inside one of the sun’s most treacherous layers: The corona. The outermost layer of the Sun.

Here, the temperatures fluctuate from1 to 5milliondegrees Fahrenheit. And solar flares exist that are so big they could swallow our planet whole. So, why are we going here, again? It turns out, the sun poses a major threat to our modern way of life. Powerful magnetic fields form near the sun’s surface. Where they sometimes spark violent eruptions calledcoronal mass ejections.

These ejections fire a surge of highly-charged particles into space that will fry any electronic circuits on impact. That includes circuits inside our satellites that control cell service, the internet, GPS, the stock exchange, and much more.

In 2014, for example, astrophysicist Daniel N. Baker explained what may happen if one of these powerful storms hit Earth directly, explaining that it could:

“cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”

Such a strike could cost an estimated $US2 trillion in damage – 10 times more than Hurricane Katrina. Now luckily, space is a big place, which makes Earth a relatively small and tricky target. In fact, the last time a powerful storm like this struck our planet was more than 150 years ago, back in 1859.But the risk is there. And NASA predicts there’s a12% chancewe’ll get hit within the next decade.

That’s where Parker Solar Probe comes in. The probe can’t prevent an ejection from happening. But it can study the corona so that we may better understand the warning signs of an impending storm. And with enough notice, we may be able to protect our satellites from harm.

In addition to spying on the sun, Parker Solar Probe has another very important job: Don’t. Melt.

To that end, NASA has prepped the probe with four highly-tuned sensors and an impressive heat shield that will protect the probe’s instruments. The sensors are there to make sure the shield stays directed at the sun at all times. The mission will involve not one, or two, but 24 dives into the sun. Which are scheduled to take place up through the year 2025.

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