Science

Parker Solar Probe: Nasa launches mission to 'touch the Sun'

Parker Solar Probe: Nasa launches mission to 'touch the Sun'

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a NASA rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe was successfully launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - marking the beginning of a seven-year mission that aims to get the probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has gone before.

The probe, about the size of a auto, will fly through the Sun's atmosphere and will come as close as 3.8 million miles to the star's surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before (Earth's average distance to the Sun is 93 million miles), according to NASA.

While the Parker Solar Probe will travel through a space with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of the heat shield that faces the Sun will only get heated to about 1,400 degree Celsius.

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed. Thus two probes which trace their lineage to MIT Professor Herb Bridge will be making measurements at opposite ends of the solar system, from as close as you can get to the sun to as far away as the local interstellar medium.

Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said: 'The sun is full of mysteries.

The craft will endure extreme heat while zooming through the solar corona to study the Sun's outer atmosphere that gives rise to the solar winds.

The probe is the first NASA spacecraft with a living namesake. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 25 million kilometres, easily beating the current record of 43 million kilometres set by Nasa's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

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.




The car-size probe is created to give scientists a better understanding of the solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

The spacecraft was named after 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who proposed the existence of solar wind 60 years ago. "We've looked at it. But we have to go there".

The probe will orbit the blistering corona, withstanding unprecedented levels of radiation and heat, in order to beam back to Earth data on the sun's activity.

The mission's findings will help researchers improve their forecasts of space weather events, which have the potential to damage satellites and harm astronauts on orbit, disrupt radio communications and, at their most severe, overwhelm power grids, NASA said.

The spacecraft's heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures.

To reach its target, the Delta 4 Heavy and a solid-propellant upper stage had to supply enough energy to counteract Earth's 18-mile-per-second orbital velocity around the sun, allowing the spacecraft to fall into the inner solar system. "It's incredible to be standing here today".

As he watched the spacecraft fly into the sky, Parker joked: "I'll bet you 10 bucks it works".