NASA begins journey to sun, launches Parker Solar Probe

Parker Solar Probe

NASA's probe will pass by Venus a total of seven times (starting in early October) as it uses the planet's gravity to whip itself ever closer to the star.

NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the Parker probe - the size of a small vehicle and well under a ton - racing toward the sun, 93 million miles (150 million kilometres) from Earth.

In this photo provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun on Sunday, Aug. 12 from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

During its mission lifetime of under seven years, the probe will complete 24 orbits of the Sun and fly within 3.7 million miles (6 million km) of the Sun's surface at closest approach.

Some scientists scoffed at University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker's 1958 paper proposing the existence of a solar wind - a constant stream of particles flowing out from the sun that permeates the entire solar system. NASA hopes the findings will enable scientists to forecast changes in Earth's space environment. "We at NASA and the Launch Services Program are thrilled to be part of this mission". It's created to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that's capable of withstanding 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius).

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

Liftoff of the Dollars 1.5 billion mission took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the USA at 3:31 am EDT (1:01 pm Indian Standard Time).

Parker Solar Probe will measure the magnetic field of the Sun and to determine the characteristics of particles that emit a star.

A plaque dedicating the mission to Parker was attached to the spacecraft in May.

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It will be used to help slow the probe, like pulling on a handbrake, and orient the probe so it's on a path to the sun. Sometimes, some of these particles escape from our star's atmosphere, and spread throughout the solar system.

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

In order to survive, the spacecraft folds its solar panels into the shadows of its protective solar shade, leaving just enough of the specially angled panels in sunlight to provide power closer to the sun.

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

This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person.

What does Parker Solar Probe mean for humanity?

In order to unlock the mysteries of the Sun's atmosphere, the probe will use Venus' gravity during seven flybys over almost seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun.

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.

Nasa chief of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Mr Parker was an "incredible hero of our scientific community" and called the probe one of Nasa's most "strategically important" missions.

A second rocket stage fired and then an extra third stage provided the final kick needed to hurtle the relatively small, 1,400-pound spacecraft out of Earth's orbit and toward the sun, releasing it 43 minutes after liftoff.

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