NASA postpones for 24 hours launch of historic spaceship to Sun

Parker Solar Probe launch delayed until Sunday

The powerful Delta 4 Heavy and a solid-propellant upper stage will provide the energy needed to counteract Earth's 18-mile-per-second orbital velocity, allowing the Parker Solar Probe to fall into the inner solar system.

Engineers are taking utmost caution with the $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe, which Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA's science mission directorate, described as one of the agency's most "strategically important missions".

If the probe doesn't launch on Sunday, the window for a successful launch doesn't close until August 23.

A last-minute technical problem yesterday has delayed NASA's unprecedented flight to the sun.

The probe is created to plunge into the Sun's mysterious atmosphere, known as the corona, coming within 6.16 million kilometres of its surface during a seven-year mission. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time this evening to go troubleshoot that and try again for a launch.

With one minute and 55 seconds left on the countdown timer, a launch controller ordered "Hold, hold, hold" when a pressure alarm sounded, showing that there was a fault with the Delta IV Heavy rocket's helium system.

The probe will dip inside this tenuous atmosphere, sampling conditions, and getting to just 6.16 million km (3.83 million miles) from the Sun's broiling "surface".

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The probe will make at least 24 passes around the sun, with gravity assists from Venus for seven of them, and continue going after that as long as it has propellant.

Image: The probe's orbits will gradually take it nearer to the sun.

The probe will be controlled from the Mission Operations Centre based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL), which is where NASA handles its unmanned missions.

"The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth", said Justin Kasper, one of the project scientists and a professor at the University of MI.

"It was just a matter of sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner 2 spacecraft showed that, by golly, there was a solar wind", Parker said earlier this week.

To handle the heat it has been covered with a special 4.5 inch (11.3 cm) thick carbon-composite shield capable of withstanding temperatures up to 1,650C (3,002F). The current close-to-the-sun champ, NASA's former Helios 2, got within 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) in 1976. It's the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after someone who's still alive.

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