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

Pat Wise
August 13, 2018

"Of the mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA's Parker Solar Probe, a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star, the Sun", said the narrator on NASA TV.

The launch was initially planned for Saturday morning. "We're in for some learning for the next several years", said Eugene Parker, 91, the astrophysicist in whose honour the spacecraft is named.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 12, 2018.

"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.

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 unique requirements of this mission made the Delta IV Heavy the flawless launch vehicle to deliver Parker Solar Probe into orbit with the highest precision", said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles, easily beating the current record of 27 million miles set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

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The USD 1.5 billion mission will perform the closest-ever observations of a star when it travels through the Sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona.

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission's derring-do. "Congratulations to our team and mission partners, we are proud to launch this exceptional spacecraft that will provide invaluable scientific information benefiting all of humankind".

"All I have to say is wow, here we go". "We've looked at it. But we have to go there". Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its unsafe journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind. The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun. It is the first mission ever to attempt to touch the sun.

A better understanding of the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with the power grids so vital to today's technology-dependent society, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's science mission chief.

Nicky Fox, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab - who were instrumental in the building of the spacecraft - said: "We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star".

"This could be from hydrogen particles beyond the solar system interacting with the furthest reaches of the solar wind, creating what appears to be a boundary in the distance, according to the paper published this week in Geophysical Research Letters".

"I'll bet you 10 bucks it works", Parker said.

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