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Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Artist’s concept of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft approaching the sun.

Editor's Note: The solar mission was officially christened the Parker Solar Probe by NASA on Wednesday, in tribute to contemporary astrophysicist Eugene Parker.

The plan is ambitious: to send a probe within 4 million miles of the sun, a short scorching distance away from the star – and even closer than the planet Mercury.

The Solar Probe Plus countdown has begun for next year – which is being touted as “humanity’s first visit to our star,” according to NASA.

The probe is expected to approach seven times closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft. Its main mission: to better understand the corona of the star, and how it produces radiation and space weather that could seriously impact our lives on Earth, according to the space agency.

“Until we can explain what is going on up close to the sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc (on) Earth,” the agency said in a statement.

The temperatures will reach almost 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit as the Solar Probe Plus approaches the sun. So the spacecraft is equipped with 4.5-inches-thick shield made of carbon composite material. The probe will measure 3 meters by 2 meters by 1 meter, and weight just under 700 kg.

The July 18, 2018 launch will bring the probe at its first closest point of orbit, or perihelion, in November 2018. Traveling 450,000 mph at times, it will get progressively closer to the star with each successive orbit until the closest approach in 2024. Twenty-four orbits are planned, each lasting 88 days and using seven gravity-assist flybys of Venus. The mission is expected to end in 2025.

Last month, the EPI-Lo particle detector was installed on the Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland.

“Measuring the energetic particles near the sun, and flying an entire suite of instruments on such a Solar Probe is an exciting event in science almost 60 years in the making,” said Ralph McNutt, the EPI-Lo lead at the Johns Hopkins institution, said in a statement earlier this month. “This type of instrument has also been decades in the making at APL, and is the next extension for such time-of-flight plus energy instruments, which orbited Mercury on MESSENGER, flew by Pluto on New Horizons, and are currently circling the Earth on the Van Allen Probes and Jupiter on the Juno mission.”

Solar storms and other space weather have been identified as one of the greatest international security dangers to the technology-reliant 21st century. But they are not new phenomena. The so-called Carrington Event set telegraph wires on fire in September 1859, and caused enough panic among some to believe the world was ending. Indeed, the world narrowly averted disaster a center later: the solar storm of late May 1967 brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of global thermonuclear war, since the sun’s interference had jammed radar and some vital Cold War communications technologies.

Los Alamos National Laboratory launched a three-year investigation of how those solar events could affect a grid like a long string of Christmas lights – increasingly long and susceptible to a cascade of problems – last September. Called “Impacts of Extreme Space Weather Events on Power Grid Infrastructure: Physics-Based Modeling of Geomagnetically-Induced Currents During Carrington-Class Geomagnetic Storms,” it is planned to lay a foundational understanding to the next big power surge.

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