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Even as many debate about the feasibility of manned long-term space missions, NASA continues to prove that there’s a lot that can be learned from a distance.


Take, for example, the recent launch of the Parker Solar Probe. Named for American physicist Eugene Parker, known for his speculation on solar winds, the probe is the culmination of 60 years’ worth of research and development. But after all of this effort, the probe’s journey is just beginning—with a launch no sooner than August 11 to start its seven-year trek toward the sun. Here’s hoping it can listen to an audiobook or two on its daunting voyage.


The probe is feasible in part because of the advanced heat shielding that allows it to endure the extreme temperatures on approach to the sun. During a demonstration, engineers took a blowtorch to a panel of heat shielding similar to the kind on the probe—and a moment later, the heat could barely be felt. The carbon foam that makes up the shielding is lightweight and covered with a heat-reflective coating. These feats of engineering were meant to address the dual issues of withstanding heat and dispersing it, as air cooling is not possible in space. Even testing the craft required incredible feats of engineering, researchers constructing a facility to simulate the temperatures the probe would operate in.


Even then, the trip is no sure thing.


Upon launch, the probe will rocket away from Earth at a pleasant cruising speed of 430,000 miles per hour. However, it is not on a direct course to the sun, instead slated to loop around Venus to slow it down on approach. It is scheduled to reach its orbit around the sun in early November. Once it has arrived, it will orbit at a distance of 3.83 million miles, spending the remainder of its journey gathering information until late 2025.


With the probe, NASA wishes to answer some lingering questions about the centerpiece of our solar system. The sun’s energy is massive, and though its effects can be readily felt on Earth, there’s a lot we still don’t know. For instance, the corona of the sun—the aura of superheated plasma extending out millions of miles—is hotter than the surface of the sun.


Another apparent contradiction is the fact that the solar winds that can buffet earth, disrupting satellites and electrical grids, are barely felt near the sun as they begin their acceleration outward. For that matter, solar winds are poorly understood, despite their implications for operations on Earth. This phenomenon and similar instances of “space weather” may be better defined and predicted with the help of the data the Parker Solar Probe sends back.


The efforts that have brought the probe into existence have been around for some time. During the Space Race of the mid to late twentieth century, many in NASA discussed the possibility of directly investigating the sun’s corona. However, the idea never quite came to fruition. Even the Helios Probes, launched in the 1970’s, were not able to approach the sun to the same extent as the Parker Solar Probe.


As the probe collects data about the energies of the sun, NASA and the scientific community eagerly await the chance to get an unprecedented up-close look at our closest star.