Published: Tue, August 14, 2018
Research | By Raquel Erickson

NASA launches Parker Solar Probe in mission to 'touch' the Sun

NASA launches Parker Solar Probe in mission to 'touch' the Sun

The Delta IV-Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe on board launching from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida yesterday, after a failed attempt the previous day.

The probe, about the size of a vehicle, will fly through the Sun's atmosphere and will come as close as 3.8 million miles to the star's surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before (Earth's average distance to the Sun is 93 million miles), according to NASA.

The craft will be protected from the heat of the sun by a revolutionary new heat shield. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years. Eugene Parker is a University of Chicago professor emeritus in physics who first proposed the concept of the solar wind.

A last-minute technical problem delayed the rocket's planned Saturday launch, with the countdown halted with just one minute, 55 seconds remaining. This followed earlier trouble in the countdown.

The spacecraft is the only NASA probe in history to be named after a living person - 91-year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.

"Congratulations to our team and mission partners, we are proud to launch this exceptional spacecraft that will provide invaluable scientific information benefiting all of humankind".

Scientists aim to learn more about the mechanisms that power the solar wind of charged particles the sun sends into the solar system, creating aurorae on Earth and sometimes screwing with our tech.

It is said to endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times greater than that experienced on Earth.

More knowledge of solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars. At closest approach, the solar shield of the probe will face temperatures approaching 1,377 degrees Celsius. It also holds a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

Parker Solar Probe's solar arrays can produce 388 watts of power, depending on configuration. The visible surface of the sun has a temperature of about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"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. That's further away than Parker but it will still need an impressive shield.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments, according to Fox. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

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