Early sunrise: Mission to 'touch' the sun blasts off from Florida

14 August, 2018, 00:10 | Author: Darnell Taylor
  • Parker Solar Probe

NASA's much-anticipated Parker Solar Probe - a spacecraft which it is said will "touch" the sun - has been launched from Cape Canaveral.

The probe is created to plunge into the Sun's mysterious atmosphere, known as the corona, coming within 6.16 million kilometers of its surface during a seven-year mission.

Now 91, Professor Parker of the University of Chicago, the first living scientist to have a space probe named in his honour, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness his first rocket launch. "Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explained Dr Nicky Fox, the British-born project scientist who is affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Looking on at the launch was astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who first theorised the existence of the solar wind in 1958.

To reach its target, the Delta 4 Heavy and a solid-propellant upper stage had to supply enough energy to counteract Earth's 18-mile-per-second orbital velocity around the sun, allowing the spacecraft to fall into the inner solar system. Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

A NASA spacecraft zoomed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before. This followed earlier trouble in the countdown.

Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to our star during the seven-year, $1.5 billion journey.

"I have learnt a very important lesson of my professional scientific career from him: to be generous to the ideas of others, as long as they are not obviously wrong, and even if they contradict my own personal views", he said.

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"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which will fly closer to the Sun that any other spacecraft has attempted before is set to explore the corona, a region of the Sun only seen from Earth when the Moon blocks out the Sun's bright face during total solar eclipses.

If all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the Sun".

A heat shield has been created to keep Parker's instruments at a tolerable 85 degrees Fahrenheit or 29 degrees Celsius.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but it was only in recent years that the heat shield technology advanced enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments.

Although the probe itself is about the size of a auto, a powerful rocket is needed to escape Earth's orbit, change direction and reach the sun. It could be due to interactions between electrically charged particles and the sun's powerful magnetic field, or it could be the result of countless "nanoflares" governed by another mechanism.

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