The U.S space agency Sunday launched a probe that aims to travel closer to the sun than ever before.
In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of almost seven years.
The car-sized probe will travel directly into the Sun's atmosphere, about 3.8 million miles from its surface - and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before, thanks to its innovative Thermal Protection System.
"While we have many missions dedicated to studying the sun from afar, we have never, ever had a mission to get this up close and personal", said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"The mission will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, where changing conditions can propagate out into the solar system, affecting Earth and other worlds", NASA said.
It's also unknown what causes the solar wind to accelerate from a steady breeze to a supersonic flow, or what sparks violent solar storms that eject blobs of material at millions of miles per hour.
Nicky Fox described the emotional scene yesterday when the launch of NASA's Parker Solar Probe failed to go off as scheduled, which made it all the more thrilling to see it finally head majestically into space this morning toward the sun.
The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe - the size of a small auto and well under a ton - racing toward the sun. Those events can affect satellites and astronauts as well as the Earth - including power grids and radiation exposure on airline flights, NASA said.
"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done wonderful things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", said Nicola Fox, mission project scientist.
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"It's of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict space weather much like we predict weather here on Earth", said Young.
Using Venus' gravity to pick up speed, the NASA probe will complete seven flybys in seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun.
Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this fall.
The probe will fly close enough to observe solar winds, assess their speed and study the formation of high-energy solar particles, which are associated with flares that can wreak havoc on Earth. Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations.
"The Alfvén point is the distance from the Sun beyond which the charged particles that make up the solar wind are no longer in contact with the surface of the Sun", Kristopher Klein, co-investigator for the probe and University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab assistant professor, said in a statement.
The mission is named for Eugene Parker, the physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958.
The 8-foot (2.4-meter) heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft's scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.
In 2017, the craft - initially called the Solar Probe Plus - was renamed the Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker.
NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the Sun". The craft's first launch took place in 2004.
"We're used to the idea that if I am standing next to a campfire, and I walk away from it, it gets cooler", said Alex Young, a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. It will also carry more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public that will eventually "orbit the sun forever", Fox said. "We've looked at it".