Initially dubbed the Solar Probe Plus mission, the spacecraft has now been renamed the Parker Solar Probe.
So what can we learn from this risky mission? The dynamic activity brought about by supercharged particles and radiation being released from the sun – encountering the Earth as they pass through the inner solar system – is called space weather.
The devastating cost of such fierce electromagnetic storms has been estimated at $2 trillion, resulting in space weather being formally listed in the UK’s National Risk Registry.
The new solar probe will revolutionise our understanding of what conditions are necessary in the sun’s atmosphere to generate severe bouts of space weather by making direct measurements of the magnetic fields, plasma densities and atmosphere temperatures for the first time.
Scientists can then feed this into intensive computer models, ultimately allowing space, aviation, power and telecommunication authorities to be alerted when potentially devastating space weather is imminent.
It will allow space agencies to better protect astronauts during future manned missions to Mars, where the thinner Martian atmosphere offers little protection to incoming solar radiation.
By being able to accurately model the effects of the streaming solar wind, future spacecraft will be able to effectively use solar sails to help them reach further into the depths of the solar system, perhaps eventually opening up the possibility of truly interstellar travel.