Nasa launches Parker Solar Probe, mankinds first mission to touch the Sun


It should help explain the corona's extreme heat, the forces driving the solar wind and the energetic particles that shoot out of the sun at more than half the speed of light.

Thousands of spectators turned up at the launch site on Sunday, including Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist the spacecraft is named after.

It took one of the most powerful rockets in the world to get the mission moving - not because the probe is large or heavy, but because of the speed required to cruise through the solar system.

As getting so close to the Sun requires slowing down, Parker will use the gravity of our neighbor planet, Venus: seven times.

Parker Solar Probe carries four instrument suites created to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and capture images of the solar wind. Sixty years ago, it was Parker who first proposed that the sun sent out a stream of solar wind.

The SWEAP Investigation is the set of instruments on the spacecraft that will directly measure the properties of the plasma in the solar atmosphere during these encounters. NASA launched the spacecraft aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket at 3:31AM Eastern this morning (August 12th) and confirmed that the vessel was healthy at 5:33AM.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", Zurbuchen said. So far, the Helios 2 spacecraft has made the closest approach, which flew within 27 million miles in 1976.

"We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star", said project scientist Nicky Fox of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, which designed the probe and manages the mission. The Parker Solar Probe is NASA's first ever named after a living person. The launch lit the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31 am (0731 GMT).

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The spacecraft will analyse so-called "space weather", which is large eruptions of radiation from the sun which batter Earth.

But Sunday's bid "went off like clockwork", said NASA launch manager Omar Baez.

"The spacecraft must operate in the sun's corona, where temperatures can reach millions of degrees", Brown told ABC News via email.

In an orbit this close to the Sun, the real challenge is to keep the spacecraft from burning up.

Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its unsafe journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind. Seven Venus flybys are planned over the seven-year mission to fine-tune the trajectory, setting up the close-in aim points.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions.

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

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments.