Lift-Off! NASA Launches Parker Solar Probe To 'Touch The Sun'

Lift-Off! NASA Launches Parker Solar Probe To 'Touch The Sun'

NASA on Sunday launched a "dangerous" mission to get closer than it ever gotten before to the Sun, its corona and solar wind.

"Three, two, one, and liftoff!" said a NASA commentator as the Parker Solar Probe lit up the dark night sky aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31 am (0731 GMT).

Now it will spend the next seven years flying through the sun's outer atmosphere in what Nasa has called "a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star".

A Saturday morning launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

While the Parker Solar Probe will travel through a space with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of the heat shield that faces the Sun will only get heated to about 1,400 degree Celsius. That will set up the first solar encounter in November.

Over the next seven years, there will be 24 close approaches to the sun.

The $1.5 billion probe is named after Eugene Parker, 91, a University of Chicago physicist who theorized in 1958 that the sun creates a solar wind - a notion that his peers found ridiculous until 1962, when the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Mariner 2 mission to Venus confirmed the theory.

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Parker, who first theorized that solar wind existed 60 years ago, added, "It's a whole new phase, and it's going to be fascinating throughout". The spacecraft will also be prepared for the first of seven planned Venus flybys scheduled for October 2.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done awesome things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist, told CNN. The first information from the mission will be transmitted back to earth later this year.

Scientists have been debating these questions for decades but NASA said technology has only come far enough in the past few decades to make the solar mission a reality.

By the time Parker gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 miles per hour. "But we have to go there".

Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations. Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast. "Even I still go, really?" But the probe's heat shield will still get hotter than lava while its instruments study the hellish environment in unprecedented detail. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

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.

"So we're already in a region of very, very interesting coronal area", Fox said. What drives the supersonic solar wind - the constant stream of solar material that blows through the entire solar system?

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