NASA is going closer to the Sun than anyone has gone before

By Don Lincoln

In a story from Greek mythology, a clever craftsman named Daedalus was imprisoned in a tower for knowing too much. To escape, he fashioned a set of wings made of feathers and wax, one for him and one for his son Icarus. As they made their escape, he cautioned the boy to not fly too high, as his wings would melt. Icarus ignored his father, soared too close to the Sun, and fell to his death.

Luckily for astronomers and science enthusiasts everywhere, NASA has completely ignored this cautionary tale.

Sometime in the two weeks starting Saturday, NASA will launch the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will fly closer to the Sun than any previous space mission. Its objective is to pass through the Sun’s corona and study the complicated magnetic fields that surround it. The probe was named after legendary American astrophysicist Eugene Parker who, in the 1950s, contributed significantly to our understanding of the environment in space surrounding the Sun.

You might think that the Sun is well understood, given that we’ve been aware of it for millennia, but it is a coquettish beast, with some significant mysteries. The sun is a nuclear furnace, constantly shooting hot plasma — mostly protons and electrons from overheated hydrogen atoms — off into space. That hot plasma is the origin of the beautiful aurorae — known in the Northern hemisphere as the Northern lights — seen in the frigid nights of the polar regions.

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