Nasa will fly a spacecraft directly into the sun in a bid to unlock the secrets of solar storms that plays havoc with satellites and power supplies, the agency has announced.

The unmanned probe will travel to within 6.6 million km of the star's surface, inside its Corona, or outer layer, the Daily Telegraph reports.

Set to launch next year, the Parker Solar Probe promises to "revolutionise" mankind's understanding of the sun and the origins of physics, scientists said last night, as well as helping protect equipment from solar radiation.

It will travel more than seven times closer to the surface than any previous flight during a seven-year mission comprising 24 orbits.


The craft will reach its destination via a tortuous series of maneuvers, using the gravity of Venus to slow to a "controlled" half a million miles per hour for its flights into the sun.

Nasa is relying a 11cm heat shield with which to protect the probe's suite of instruments from the brutal heat.

Once inside the Corona, sensory equipment will attempt to "taste" and "smell" electronic particles while they are still moving slowly enough to be measured.

The craft will also carry telescopes with which scientists hope to gain unprecedented close-up images of the sun.

Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, said: "It will be a great technological achievement to gather data so close to the sun and to beam it back without the antenna melting.

"In-situ measurements made in this ultra-hostile environment will tell us things about ultra-hot gas and magnetic fields that we can't learn from terrestrial experiments."

A network of satellites is currently deployed to observe the surface of the sun.

Despite this, scientists have a poor understanding of how radiation builds up in the star's outer atmosphere and then accelerates towards Earth.


Radioactive storms are able to knock out satellites, disrupting services such as communications and GPS, and in some cases they can penetrate the Earth's protective shield and interfere with electricity supplies.

Astronomers said a more detailed picture of how solar waves reach Earth would enable operators to predict radiation interference and protect vital equipment.

A better understanding of "space weather" is also considered crucial for protecting astronauts and their equipment for any future endeavours to colonise the Moon or Mars.

From its position within the Corona, the Parker Solar Probe will be able to watch as solar winds whip up to supersonic speeds.

A Nasa spokesman said: "The spacecraft will explore the sun's outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.

"The resulting data will improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space."

The nearest a spacecraft has previously come to the sun was the Helios 2 mission in 1976, which flew to within 43 million km.

The new mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in either July or August next year and will make its first flight into the sun in November.

A mission forthcoming mission was described yesterday as '60 years in the making', a reference to a groundbreaking 1958 paper by Eugene Parker, after whom the probe is named, on the science of solar storms.

Yesterday he told a press conference at the University of Chicago that one of the key questions the mission would aim to answer is why the outer atmosphere of the sun appears to be hotter than the star's surface.

Nicola Fox, one of the mission project scientists, said: "We have really come as far as we can with looking at things and it's time to pay it a visit.

"It's time to touch the sun."

The spacecraft will carry instruments to measure bulk plasma, described as the "bread and butter" of solar waves, as well as a full package of magnetic measuring equipment.

It will also carry a white light imager, which has been dubbed "Whisper", that can photograph solar waves as the craft flies through them.

Dr Daniel Brown, an astronomer at Nottingham Trent University, said the success of the mission depended upon the probe's sensitive orientation equipment keeping the heat shield facing in the right direction.

"They are really pushing the boundaries with this mission," he said.

"They are doing it because it is hard."