Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to 'touch the sun'

Aug 13, 2018, 00:24
Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to 'touch the sun'

Embarking on a mission that scientists have been dreaming of since the Sputnik era, a NASA spacecraft hurtled Sunday toward the sun on a quest to unlock some of its mysteries by getting closer than any object sent before.

The car-sized, $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe launched on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The probe, about the size of a auto, 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 probe is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

Parker Solar Probe will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun's corona.

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The Parker probe is expected to make 24 loops of the Sun over seven years.

Thousands of spectators turned up at the launch site on Sunday, including Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist the spacecraft is named after.

Learning more about the solar wind also will help scientists better predict the effects of solar storms and the impact of the solar wind on Earth's magnetic field, wreaking havoc with communications, power grids and navigation.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done fantastic things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist, told CNN.

A mission to get this close has been on NASA's books since 1958. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years.

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NASA says the probe will travel directly into the sun's atmosphere over the course of its mission and will get to within about four million miles of the star's surface. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. A key question that the probe seeks to answer is how solar wind is accelerated, and for the first time it will be able to look for answers at the source of solar wind itself. The first science data should return sometime in December.

During the journey, the spacecraft will fly by Venus at speeds of 4,30,000 miles per hour, the equivalent of flying from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

"To me, it's still mind-blowing", she said.

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. The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, will be too far away to help. As you might guess, NASA is relying on automation to make this work.

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