Nasa launches first ever solar probe to 'touch the sun'

Parker Solar Probe launch
NASA: Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to 'touch the sun' | Daily Star

13 August, 2018

Nestled atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, one of the world's most powerful rockets, with a third stage added, Parker Solar Probe blasted off toward the sun with a whopping 55 times more energy than was required to reach Mars.

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.

As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse.

The corona gives rise to the solar wind, a continuous flow of charged particles that permeates the solar system and can cause havoc with communications technology on Earth.

"So it's of fundamental importance for us to be able to predict this space weather much like we predict weather here on Earth".

No human-made vehicle has ever come so close - leading the American space agency to claim the probe will "touch" the sun.

The probe will get within 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometres) of the sun's surface after travelling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph.

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The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed "the bravest little instrument", is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to "scoop up samples" of the Sun's atmosphere, according to Professor Justin Kasper of the University of MI.

The car-sized probe was launched aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket at 3.31 a.m. "We've looked at it, we've studied it from missions that are close in - even as close as the planet Mercury - but we have to go there".

The mission called Parker Solar Probe (PSP), commenced after a 24-hour delay. The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun.

"Now I have to turn from really biting my nails to thinking about the interesting things [to come] that I don't know yet, which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five, six, or seven years", he said.

Speaking after the launch, the 91-year-old told NASA TV: "It's a whole new phase and it's going to be fascinating throughout. We're in for some learning here over the next several years". The spacecraft will also be prepared for the first of seven planned Venus flybys scheduled for October 2. "We actually slow down just a little bit, and that allows us to shrink our orbit", Fox explained.

NASA hopes the probe - which was named in honor of Dr. Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago professor who successfully predicted the existence of solar wind in 1958 - will help scientists crack some of the sun's greatest mysteries, including the secret of the corona's incredibly high temperatures and the origins of and the mechanism behind the acceleration of solar wind.

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