NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

Frederick Owens
August 12, 2018

The Parker solar probe, a robotic spacecraft the size of a small vehicle, 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. Now 91, Parker, the first living scientist to have a space probe named in his honor, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness his first rocket launch. The spacecraft will make its first close approach in early November, when it will travel 15 million miles from the Sun - inside the Sun's corona (aka the solar atmosphere).

The Parker Solar Probe lifted off on the Delta IV Heavy rocket a day late, after a dramatic delay on Saturday saw lift-off halted with two minutes to go.

The spacecraft is protected from melting during its close shave with the Sun by a heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

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.

The Parker probe is named after U.S. astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who developed a pioneering theory on supersonic solar wind in 1958.

He proposed the existence of solar wind - a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun - 60 years ago.

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Perhaps most important for us humans, the science undertaken with the help of the Parker Solar Probe will likely improve our ability to forecast space weather - including solar flares that can disrupt signals from satellites and, in extreme cases, can even blow out transformers on our terrestrial power grids. NASA hopes the findings will enable scientists to forecast changes in Earth's space environment.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done incredible things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist, told CNN.

The probe will zip past Venus in six weeks and make a first rendezvous with the Sun a further six weeks after that. "We're in for some learning over the next several years", he said as he watched the lift-off. All I can say is wow, here we go.

One of the reasons, scientists are sending the probe is the Sun's atmosphere and the weird property it exhibits, of being hotter than the surface of the sun itself. That's nearly 10 times closer than Mercury gets, and seven times closer than any previous probe.

It is said to endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times greater than that experienced on Earth.

He added: "It's a whole new phase and it's gonna be fascinating throughout.and we're just waiting for the data now so the experts can get busy because there's a lot of data will be coming in".

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