NASA counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

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A space probe that aims to be the first to "touch the sun" is slated to launch this weekend, marking the next step in an effort that scientists say has been 60 years in the making.NASA's Parker Solar Probe will lift off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Saturday, Aug. 11 at 3:33 a.m. EDT. The goal is to collect data and images on the sun's atmosphere, called the "corona", Engadget reports.

Even in a region where temperatures can reach more than a million degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius).

The records will start falling with the first orbit, when the Parker probe comes within 25 million kilometres of the sun and beats the current record holder, NASA's former Helios 2 spacecraft. Disturbances in its solar wind can have an impact on near-Earth space, which can affect our planet's satellites.

"The solar corona is one of the last places in the solar system where no spacecraft has visited before", Parker Solar Probe scientist Adam Szabo said in a statement. While granting us life, the sun also has the power to disrupt spacecraft in orbit, and communications and electronics on Earth. "Well, Parker Solar Probe's going to be in there", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University. "Our first fly-by to Venus is in the fall, in September". It's the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after someone who's still alive.

Over the next seven years, as it circles the sun, the probe will wrap around Venus seven times, each time slowing down and swooping closer to the sun. The spacecraft is now scheduled to launch tomorrow (Aug. 11) at 3:33 a.m. (0733 GMT).

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The spacecraft will orbit the sun 24 times - sampling the solar wind and providing close-up observations - while enduring temperatures of 1,377C (2510F).

The spacecraft eventually will run out of fuel and, no longer able to keep its heat shield pointed toward the sun, will burn and break apart - except perhaps for the rugged heat shield.

A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY. Ultimately, the more we can learn about the Sun, the better.

If everything goes as planned, the Parker Solar Probe will reach its first close point to the Sun this November, resulting in the first batch of data in December.

As NASA explains, the probe's first challenge will be to cancel out the speed at which the earth is moving in relation to the sun.