Unmanned NASA craft takes off on mission towards Sun

Unmanned NASA craft takes off on mission towards Sun

The Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft the size of a small auto, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida about 3:30 a.m. Sunday, on a seven-year mission.

The spellbinding footage shows Parker's engines ignite propelling the probe towards the sun to start its seven-year-long mission to explore the Sun.

"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).

The mission is named for Dr Eugene Parker, a physicist at the University of Chicago who proposed the existence of solar wind.

It is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after someone still alive.

At a press conference last week, Parker said of his namesake mission: "I expect to find some surprises".

Parker will enter the Sun's atmosphere to sample conditions around our star, reaching as far as 6.16 million km from the Sun's scorching surface.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

Scorching, yes? But if all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Protected by a revolutionary new heat shield, the spacecraft will fly past Venus in October, setting up its first solar encounter in November.

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"The outer sun-facing side of the shield will reach 2,500 Fahrenheit at closest approach to the sun".

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance.

In particular, scientists hope it will provide information about solar winds and solar energy particles.

"All I can say is "Wow, here we go, we're in for some learning over the next several years", he said when asked how he felt.

Finally, after two firings of the second-stage engine, the Parker Solar Probe and its Northrup Grumman solid-fuel upper stage were released from the Delta 4.

It is said the data gathered by the car-sized probe will "revolutionise" our understanding of the star, which has a huge impact on Earth.

"I really have to turn from biting my nails and getting it launched to thinking about all the interesting things, which I don't know yet, (that) will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years", Parker said in a NASA interview. "Each time we fly by, we get closer and closer to the Sun".

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions. "Why is the corona hotter than the surface of the sun?"

Scientists have devised ways to ensure the automated and unmanned probe does not melt in the extreme heat and radiation. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun. "It's incredible to be standing here today". His 1958 paper was initially ridiculed but has come to be central to our understanding of the solar system and beyond.

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