Published: Tue, August 14, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

NASA launches Parker Solar Probe ‘mission to touch the sun’

NASA launches Parker Solar Probe ‘mission to touch the sun’

Liftoff took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the U.S. early on Sunday.

"The key lies in its custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the Sun's intense light emission, but does allow the coronal material to "touch" the spacecraft", NASA said in a statement.

The tools on board will measure the expanding corona and continually flowing atmosphere known as the solar wind, which solar physicist Eugene Parker first described in 1958.

"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 Dr Justin Kasper, a project scientist and professor at the University of MI.

The mission had been expected to launch on Saturday, but was delayed at the last minute due to a technical problem.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe zoomed towards the sun's atmosphere at 3:31 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a groundbreaking quest to get closer to our star than ever before. This followed earlier trouble in the countdown.

The sun will be orbited 24 times by the probe to learn more about the physics of the corona, the outer ring of plasma around the star, where it is believed much of the solar activity that affects the earth originates.

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University.

The probe will explore the corona, the outermost atmosphere of the Sun, and investigate the mysteries of the solar wind, the flow of charged particles that streams into the solar system at about... That's nearly 10 times closer than Mercury gets, and seven times closer than any previous probe.

At closest approach to the sun, the front of PSP's solar shield faces temperatures approaching 2,500 degrees F. The spacecraft's payload will be near room temperature.

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.

The specially shielded Parker Solar Probe will have to endure temperatures up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) and solar radiation intensities 475 times higher than we're used to here on Earth.

An artist's depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work around the sun.

Greeting the launch - on the back of a mammoth Delta-IV Heavy rocket - NASA tweeted: "3-2-1... and we have liftoff of Parker #SolarProbe atop @ULAlaunch's #DeltaIV Heavy rocket". That's further away than Parker but it will still need an impressive shield.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but it was only in recent years that the heat shield technology advanced enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments.

Once there, the spacecraft will become the fastest one ever, orbiting the Sun at a whopping 430-thousand miles an hour.

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