The Parker Solar Probe, named for astrophysicist Eugene Parker, is set to launch next summer.
Data sent back to Earth some 89 million miles (1.4 billion km) away will help scientists figure out why the sun's atmosphere, or corona, is hotter than its surface. "But until you go there and actually touch the sun, you can't actually answer these key questions".
And it will be hot.
Surface temperature: 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are we trying to find out?The goal: improve space weather predictions by learning more about the sun's corona-the "crown" of plasma that surrounds stars. Parker discovered solar wind in the 1950s and is about to celebrate his 90th birthday. When Parker first started his research almost 60 years ago, "the materials didn't exist to allow us to be able to do it", Fox said. Why in this region does the solar atmosphere suddenly get so energized that it escapes from the hold of the sun and bathes all of the planets?
In 1989, a coronal mass ejection from the sun disrupted communications with multiple satellites and caused a power blackout for nine hours in Quebec that affected six million people. The craft will have to stand up more than 13,000 degree heat. "Solar Probe Plus will help us predict and manage the impact of space weather on society", Kasper continued.
In fact, he said, spacecraft such as the Kepler Space Telescope already use this technique. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what's going on in the solar wind. "But when we talk about going to the moon or Mars where the atmosphere is little or none ... we don't have that protection", he said. The relationship between the Sun and Earth is a critical connection and must, therefore, be fully understood by us.
What will stop the spacecraft melting?
"We had to develop a heat shield that could protect the spacecraft itself and instruments from extreme heat".
Those scorching temperatures are the main reason it's taken so long for this type of mission to get off the ground. The front face will be covered in aluminium oxide to reflect light and heat.
Once fitted, instruments will be able to operate at room temperature. Parker theorized that the sun's corona was several hundred times hotter than the visible solar surface (the photosphere) and the development - and observational confirmation - of the theory of the corona's supersonic expansion into interplanetary space as a "solar wind".
"It will take just three months to make the first flyby of the Sun". That's well inside the orbit of Mercury, and seven times closer than any other probe has ever gotten to the sun, NASA officials said.