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

Pablo Tucker
August 14, 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.

Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its risky journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

On board the Delta IV Heavy rocket is the Parker Solar Probe on its first mission to the sun.

The spacecraft was visible over the Sunshine Coast on Sunday night, after Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by technical issues.

PSP is the only NASA mission, scientific probe to study the sun's corona and solar wind.

"The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys and 24 orbits over almost seven years to gradually reduce its orbit around the Sun", it added.


It has been designed with shields to help it endure the intense heat and solar radiation.

However the technology to make the spacecraft small and light enough to travel at incredible speeds - while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme changes in temperature - are only now possible.

"Wow, here we go!"

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

"The mission will unlock mysteries of the corona, including why it's so much hotter than the surface of the sun which is about 10,000 Farenheit", Brown said. But Sunday gave way to complete success.

It is hoped the Parker probe will eventually get within 3.83 million miles of the sun, just four per cent of the total distance and closer than ever before. It also holds a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.


The spacecraft is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick, 8-foot-wide carbon composite shield that should keep the electronics at their proper operating temperature even amid temperatures that would melt aluminum. "Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explained Dr Nicky Fox, the British-born project scientist who is affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral, and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done unbelievable things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist, told CNN.

They are also curious about the solar winds that sometimes disrupt satellite and ground communications. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times. According to NASA, its top speed is expected to hit 430,000 miles per hour.

If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will swing by Venus in about six weeks for a gravitational encounter that will help the spacecraft slow down still more.


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