In the wee hours of Saturday morning (3:33 AM), a car-sized NASA spacecraft will embark on its journey to the center of our Solar System, where it will mingle with the scorching hot atmosphere of our Sun. The vehicle is the Parker Solar Probe, and it’s destined to get within 4 million miles of our parent star, which is closer than any other human-made artifact has reached before. From this vantage point, the probe is poised to solve mysteries about the Sun and its atmosphere that have plagued scientists for over half a century.
NASA has long wanted to send a vehicle to the Sun’s atmosphere, but such a mission has been considered impossible until the last few decades. This region of space, known as the corona, is filled with tiny, energetic particles that can reach above 3 million degrees Fahrenheit. Any vehicle that ventures near this region must have sophisticated protection to keep from melting. But thanks to advancements in carbon manufacturing and other key areas of engineering, NASA has been able to create a vehicle with a state-of-the-art heat shield and other crucial cooling systems. The result: the spacecraft will stay at room temperature in some of the hottest places in the Solar System.