LAUREL, Md — NASA’s on a mission to “touch” the sun.

The unmanned Parker Solar Probe, which is slated for liftoff next year, will be mankind’s first-ever visit to our nearest star.

The probe “will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to its surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions — and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star,” NASA said in a statement. 

The spacecraft, which was recently on display for media at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.

The $1.6-billion mission aims to improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as astronauts in space, NASA said. Space weather can also change the orbits of satellites, shorten their lifetimes, or interfere with onboard electronics.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of the APL.

The probe will fly through the sun’s atmosphere as close as 3.9 million miles to the star’s surface, well within the orbit of Mercury. 

The project was first considered in 1958, making it the oldest NASA project still on the books, said Betsy Congdon, an aerospace engineer on the project. The challenge, she said, has always been how to protect such a craft from the sun’s intense heat. 

Cutting-edge thermal engineering advances allowed the creation of a 4.5-inch thick, eight-foot diameter carbon shield that protects the spacecraft and its instruments against the heat and energy of the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, through which the spacecraft…