“This will be a monumental achievement for all humanity. This is equivalent to the Moon landing of 1969.”

Sun Intended

This year, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will attempt to brush past the Sun’s atmosphere at a blistering 435,000 mph, getting within just 3.8 million miles of its fiery “surface.”

It’s the closest any human-made object will have ever gotten to our system’s star — and scientists behind the project aren’t afraid to draw some notable comparisons.

“We are basically almost landing on a star,” Parker project scientist Nour Raouafi told the BBC. “This will be a monumental achievement for all humanity. This is equivalent to the Moon landing of 1969.”

Closest Pass

While 3.8 million miles may sound like a considerable distance, it’s just four percent of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Even at that distance, the Parker Solar Probe will have to survive temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The probe, which launched in 2018, has already made several close passes of our star. In 2021, NASA bragged that its probe had “touched” the Sun, coming within 8.1 million miles above the solar surface. Late last year, it made one of its closest approaches yet, per the BBC.

Then, on Christmas Eve of this year, it will dip down for its record-breaking flyby.

Hot Ones

As for the possibility of “landing” on the Sun,” needless to say, it’s far from the experience of landing on a solid mass like Mars. The Sun is a spinning cloud of hydrogen and helium gas, compressed together by its own gravity. Once this material leaves the corona, or the Sun’s outer atmosphere, it turns into solar wind, forming a magnetic bubble around the Sun.

What’s commonly referred to as its “surface” is actually the photosphere or “light sphere,” the first layer of the Sun’s atmosphere. It gets its name from emitting most of the visible light spectrum, allowing us to actually see it from Earth with our — hopefully protected — eyes. The photosphere is 250 miles thick and can reach blistering temperatures of around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

In short, while the Parker Solar Probe may not actually land on our star — an impossible feat — it will get far closer than any human-made object before it, hopefully revealing some of the Sun’s many remaining mysteries.

“As we speed closer and closer to the solar surface, we will learn more about the properties of the Sun itself,” Raouafi said in a statement last year, “but that data will also significantly improve our knowledge of space weather and our ability to live and work in space.”

More on the probe: NASA’s Solar Probe Survived Flying Right Through Massive Sun Explosion

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