Published: Sun, August 12, 2018
Sci-tech | By Javier West

NASA launches historic probe to 'touch Sun'

NASA launches historic probe to 'touch Sun'

NASA says the probe will travel directly into the sun's atmosphere over the course of its mission and will get to within about four million miles of the star's surface.

The probe was borne into the heavens atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

But then, the launch of NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong.

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

Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named.

"We'll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690,000km/h (430,000mph) - NY to Tokyo in under a minute!" she told BBC News.

Originally slated to fly in the small hours of Saturday morning, the Parker Solar Probe blasted off Sunday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 03:31 am EDT / 00:31 PT / 8.31 UMT.

NASA said the mission to "touch the Sun" will provide scientists with vital new information about our solar system and beyond.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around as it climbed through a clear, star-studded sky.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

The car-sized probe will utilise Venus to try and achieve an orbit around the sun by helping to slow it down. NASA chief of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Parker is an "incredible hero of our scientific community".

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe - it's ours, after all - and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions.

NASA hope the breakthrough journey will reveal why the sun's outer layer - the corona - is hotter than the surface.

Scientists have devised ways to ensure the automated and unmanned probe does not melt in the extreme heat and radiation.

Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times.

Yanping Guo, who designed the mission trajectory, said: "The launch energy to reach the Sun is 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto". With a communication lag time of 16 minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

More than 1 million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.

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