NASA launched a probe to 'touch the sun'

Cheryl Sanders
August 12, 2018

NASA has successfully launched a spacecraft destined to become the fastest man-made object ever as it gets closer to the sun than we've been before. Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person.

In an unprecedented quest, the Parker Solar Probe will fly within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface.

The craft will be protected from the heat of the sun by a revolutionary new heat shield.

The unprecedented sun-skimming probe that lifted off today from the U.S. is set to study the "solar winds" proposed in the paper by Dr Eugene Newman Parker, who has now become the first living scientist to have mission named after him.

Over the next seven years, Parker will fly directly through the Sun's roasting hot outer atmosphere in a bid to unlock some of the solar system's greatest secrets.

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

Scientists are aiming to use the probe to collect data about the inner workings of the highly magnetised corona, to better understand the causes of solar wind.

"All I can say is, wow, here we go, we're in for some learning over the next several years", University of Chicago solar physicist Eugene Parker said just after liftoff.

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the Sun".

"Until you actually go there and touch the sun, you really can't answer these questions", said Project Scientist Nicola Fox.

Its maximum velocity around the sun will reach 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object to orbit a celestial body. Seven Venus flybys are planned over the seven-year mission to fine-tune the trajectory, setting up the close-in aim points.

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.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

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.

The mission, that costs about $ 1.5 bn has been over five decades in the making, and is unique for bringing a space probe closer to the sun than any man made object.

"So we're already in a region of very, very interesting coronal area", Fox said.

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

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