Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to 'touch the sun'

Parker Solar Probe

The car-sized probe is created to give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

Unlike many planetary exploration missions, which primarily orbit the planet itself, the Parker probe will be swooping closer and closer to the sun by way of an elliptical orbit that will include seven "gravity-assist" flybys of Venus.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid. NASA hopes the findings will enable scientists to forecast changes in Earth's space environment. Liftoff took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the U.S. early today.

The probe is created to plunge into the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

The probe will make its closest approach in 2024 when the next total solar eclipse is expected to be seen over the US, and with that, the spacecraft will be visible.

It is the first space craft to be named after a living person - astrophysicist Eugene Parker, 91, who first described solar wind in 1958.

The launch was called off at the last minute on Saturday after a gaseous helium pressure red alarm emerged that the scientists did not have enough time to troubleshoot. "We're in for some learning over the next several years", he said as he watched the lift-off.

"I'm in awe", Zurbuchen said.

Trailing a plume of fiery exhaust visible for scores of miles around, the huge 1.6-million-pound rocket majestically climbed away from launch complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, arcing away on an easterly trajectory over the Atlantic Ocean. A few seconds after that, the upper stage's single hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine ignited to continue the climb to space.

To handle the heat it has been covered with a special 4.5 inch thick carbon-composite shield capable of withstanding temperatures up to 1,650C.

Forty-three minutes after launch, the spacecraft jettisoned the spent upper stage and began flying on its own.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometres), and the Parker probe will be within four percent of that distance. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the surface in the years ahead, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

"We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams", Fox said.

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