Nasa counts down to launch of first spacecraft to 'touch Sun'

Pablo Tucker
August 11, 2018

Set to launch early Saturday, the Parker Solar Probe is as heat-resistant as a spacecraft gets, essential for exploring our star closer than ever before.

The reason for the delay was not immediately clear, but was called for after a gaseous helium alarm was sounded in the last moments before liftoff, officials said. The 65-minute launch window opens at 3:33 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 37. Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will fly by Venus seven times, using the planet's gravity to bring itself closer to the Sun each time.

After launch, the spacecraft will head toward the sun's atmosphere, known as the solar corona, made up of super hot plasma.

Parker, now retired from the University of Chicago, spent his career trying to understand the sun and the ways it affects the solar system. In reality, it will aim to eventually reach about 3.8 million miles away, well within the sun's atmosphere.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation on Earth.

The probe's mission is to dip into the solar atmosphere and deduce how the rarefied gasses there are heated to millions of degrees centigrade when the solar surface itself is just 6,000°C.

If all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit. "To send it into such brutal conditions is highly ambitious", said Nicola Fox, a project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University applied physics laboratory. Perhaps the best part is that Parker, the first living person to have a mission named for him, will watch the mission he pioneered lift off, too.

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.

Roughly the size of a small auto, Parker will get almost seven times closer to the sun than previous spacecraft. "Sometimes you just see, like how over a lifetime, things just come together and create these awesome stories, these leaps going forward".

It has just been in the past several years that electronics can be sufficiently miniaturized and materials like Carbon-Carbon are available to create a heat shield that can protect instruments.

Tools on board will measure high-energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun.

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