Spacewatch: Firing up for a close encounter with the sun

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Protected by a sophisticated heat shield the probe is created to go closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft. Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will fly by Venus seven times, using the planet's gravity to bring itself closer to the Sun each time.

The Parker Solar Probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, will, as the United States space agency describes it, "touch the sun" as it flies within 3.9 million miles of the star's surface.

After launch, the spacecraft will head toward the sun's atmosphere, known as the solar corona, made up of super hot plasma.

Solar wind can create a whole host of issues for humans - from messing with Global Positioning System communications to exposing astronauts in space to high radiation - and the Parker Solar Probe is launching on a mission to figure out where it comes from.

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Successive flybys will be closer, culminating, in 2024, with a series of encounters just 3.8m miles above the sun's surface.

The last time a man-made object came close to the star's surface was in 1976 when Helios 2 achieved perihelion, point of the orbit at which it was closest to the sun, at 27 million miles. The spacecraft and its suite of delicate instruments will be protected from the sun's extreme heat by a carbon fiber heat shield. The goal is to collect data and images on the sun's atmosphere, called the "corona", Engadget reports.

The spacecraft is named for Eugene Parker, the scientist who first predicted the existence of the solar wind - fast-moving solar particles that stream through the entire solar system.

The powerful rocket is needed to propel the payload, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, to the sun.

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