NASA blasts off historic probe to ‘touch Sun’

Parker Solar Probe

NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched this morning

Embarking on a mission that scientists have been dreaming of since the Sputnik era, a NASA spacecraft hurtled Sunday toward the sun on a quest to unlock some of its mysteries by getting closer than any object sent before.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard launching from the Mobile Service Tower on Sunday, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The probe's destination is the sun's corona, which it will fly through over two dozen times, eventually coming within less than 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of our star's surface.

The launch was originally set for Saturday morning, but was scrubbed at the last minute due to technical glitches.

Obviously, it's going to be bloody warm out there, but fear not - the probe has a revolutionary new heat shield that is meant to stop it burning up. The first data download from the Parker Solar Probe is expected in early December after the probe reaches its first close approach of the sun in November.

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.

Scientists hope this close encounter will give them a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

"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. We've studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. Seven Venus flybys are planned over the seven-year mission to fine-tune the trajectory, setting up the close-in aim points. It is the first mission ever to attempt to touch 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.

NASA chief of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Parker is an "incredible hero of our scientific community".

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn't about to let it take off without him.

Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this fall.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hours - the fastest ever human-made object, fast enough to travel from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

"To me, it's still mind-blowing", she said.

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

"Eugene Parker had the vision to recognise the possibilities discussed in my thesis, and the magnanimity to write a glowing review of a thesis for an unknown student from a far away country - a PhD thesis that contradicted one of his own theories", he said.

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