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A NASA probe is about to launch on a mission to the sun in the name of protecting the Earth.

The car-sized probe, which will get within 3.9million miles of the sun's surface, is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Saturday at 8.33am British time.

Its mission is to help scientists unlock the mysteries of the sun's atmosphere and answer questions like why its corona, the outermost layer of the solar atmosphere, is hotter than its surface. The current close-to-the-sun champ, NASA's former Helios 2, got within 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) in 1976.

In addition to bringing humanity closer to the Sun than ever before, the unmanned probe will also set a new speed record for a manmade object when it reaches 430,000 miles per hour in 2024.

The probe is relying on a 4.5 inch carbon heat shield which has taken 10 years to develop and which is so strong it will survive for billions of years even when the rest of the spacecraft has disintegrated.

"The coolest, hottest mission, baby, that's what it is", said Nicola Fox, the project scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

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

The project, with a $1.5bn (€1.3bn) price tag, is the first major space mission under Nasa's "Living With a Star" programme.

But then, the launch of Nasa's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong.

"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. But it can withstand 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) as well as extreme radiation, thanks to its high-tech carbon.

The spacecraft will hit 690,000 kph in the corona at closest approach.

Tools on board will measure high energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun.

"With each orbit, we'll be seeing new regions of the sun's atmosphere and learning things about stellar mechanics that we've wanted to explore for decades".


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