NASA Launches $1.5 Billion Probe To Historic Mission To The Sun

NASA successfully launches spacecraft that will explore the sun

The Parker solar probe, a robotic spacecraft the size of a small auto, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday, embarking on a seven-year mission which will see it flying into the sun's corona - the outermost part of its atmosphere - within 3.8m miles (6.1 m km) of its surface.

One of those watching the historic moment was Dr Eugene Parker, the now 91-year-old scientist who first suggested the possibility of solar winds in 1958 and who the craft is named after.

A triple-core Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral just after 3:30 a.m. Sunday, momentarily turning night into day in a spectacle visible for miles along the Florida coast.

"Until you actually go there and touch the sun, you really can't answer these questions", said Project Scientist Nicola Fox. But an 8-foot-wide heat shield out front - only 4.5 inches thick - should keep the probe's electronics safe at room temperature. But that was her reaction in the wee hours today (Aug. 12) as she watched NASA's Parker Solar Probe launch on an unprecedented mission to the sun.

The launch speed was clocked at 69,000 kilometers per hour and it is expected to top out at more than ten times that speed while in space due to the Sun's gravitational pull. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 25 million kilometres, easily beating the current record of 43 million kilometres set by Nasa's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

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The unmanned spacecraft's mission is to get closer than any human-made object ever to the center of our solar system. It is the first NASA mission to be named for a living researcher. All I can say is wow, here we go. "It took a while for the Delta IV Heavy to clear the pad", Fox said, "but I was prepared for that, so I didn't panic". "We've looked at it". Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its unsafe journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind. While it won't be as risky as you might think - the corona is millions of degrees Fahrenheit, but very sparse - even a brief shield failure could expose the equipment and burn it beyond recognition.

Good news everybody, NASA is about to send a massively expensive spacecraft to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Sensors will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times and it will correct itself if it ends up at the wrong angle.

Nicky Fox, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab - who were instrumental in the building of the spacecraft - said: "We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star".

New Horizons' data suggests a wall of hydrogen marks the edge of the solar system, where the sun's solar winds peter out, no longer able to push back interstellar winds.

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