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NASA’s Parker probe is about to get up close and personal with the sun

The spacecraft, set to launch August 4, will get within 6 million kilometers of our star

SUNKISSED The Parker Solar Probe (illustrated), set to launch in early August, will get closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is about to embark on one daredevil stunt of a space mission.

Slated to launch August 4, the probe will be the first spacecraft to swoop through the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, a roiling inferno of plasma heated to several million degrees Celsius.

Parker will whip around the sun two dozen times over the next seven years, skirting within about 6 million kilometers of the star’s surface — more than seven times as close as any previous spacecraft. At its nearest approach, Parker will hurtle through the corona at about 700,000 kilometers per hour, making the craft the fastest human-made object in the solar system. The probe would need only about a second to zip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

Parker’s closeup observations of the corona and the solar wind, the torrent of charged particles that the sun spews into space, could help resolve long-standing mysteries about the inner workings of the sun’s atmosphere. And the new data may improve forecasts for space weather that endangers spacecraft, astronauts and technology on the ground.

The trove of new data gathered by this probe “is going to answer a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer in any other way,” says Craig DeForest, a heliophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who is not involved in the mission. “There’s been a tremendous amount of anticipation.”

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