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Nasa’s Parker probe sets off on quest for closeup view of the sun

Probe launches after technical delay, on mission to get nearer to sun than anything sent before

A Nasa spacecraft is rocketing towards the sun on a quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

The Parker solar probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, which was visible during last Augusts total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8m miles (6.1m km) of the suns surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to explore the sun in a way never before possible.

Fly baby girl, fly!! project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before liftoff. She urged it to go touch the sun.


3-2-1 and we have liftoff of Parker #SolarProbe atop @ULAlaunchs #DeltaIV Heavy rocket. Tune in as we broadcast our mission to touch the Sun: https://t.co/T3F4bqeATB pic.twitter.com/Ah4023Vfvn

August 12, 2018

Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5bn (1.2bn) project.

For the second day in succession, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns. Among the crowd was 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker, for whom the spacecraft is named. He proposed the existence of solar wind a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun 60 years ago.

It is the first time Nasa has named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker was not about to let it take off without him being there. Saturday mornings launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

Im just so glad to be here with him, said Nasas science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. Frankly, theres no other name that belongs on this mission.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness on Sunday, thrilling onlookers for miles around. Nasa needed the mighty 23-storey rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe the size of a small car and weighing well under a tonne racing toward the sun.

From Earth, it is 93m miles to the sun, and the Parker probe will be within 4% of that distance. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.

The rocket launches the probe. Photograph: Bill Ingalls/AFP/Getty Images

Parker will start shattering records this autumn. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5m miles, easily beating the current record set by Nasas Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. By the time Parker gets to its 22nd orbit of the sun, it will be even deeper into the corona and travelling at a record-breaking 430,000mph.

Nothing from planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

To me, its still mind-blowing, Fox said. Even I still go, Really? Were doing that?

By better understanding the suns life-giving and sometimes violent nature, humans will be able to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, Zurbuchen says.

With this mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5bn years old. Among them: why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the suns atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as the University of Chicagos Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

Astrophysicist Eugene Parker. Photograph: Kim Shiflett/AP

The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun, Fox said. Weve looked at it. Weve studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there.

The spacecrafts heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times. If there is any tilting, the spacecraft will correct itself so nothing gets damaged. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun. The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland will be too far away to help.

A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on Nasas books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the suns punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

Weve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams, Fox said. Its incredible to be standing here today.

More than a million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photographs of Eugene Parker, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.

Ill bet you 10 bucks it works, Parker said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/aug/12/nasas-parker-probe-sets-off-on-quest-for-closeup-view-of-the-sun

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