Tuesday, 23 April, 2019

Lift off! NASA's 'touch the sun' Parker Solar Probe mission launches

NASA successfully launches spacecraft that will explore the sun The Parker Solar Probe launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida on Sunday | Reuters
Sandy Nunez | 12 August, 2018, 15:09

NASA hopes the probe - which was named in honor of Dr. Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago professor who successfully predicted the existence of solar wind in 1958 - will help scientists crack some of the sun's greatest mysteries, including the secret of the corona's incredibly high temperatures and the origins of and the mechanism behind the acceleration of solar wind.

"We are going to be in an area that is so exciting, where solar wind - we believe - will be accelerating", said NASA planetary science division director Jim Green.

In reality, it should come within 3.83 million miles (6.16 million kilometers) of the Sun's surface, close enough to study the curious phenomenon of the solar wind and the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, which is 300 times hotter than its surface.

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.

Unlike many planetary exploration missions, which primarily orbit the planet itself, the Parker probe will be swooping closer and closer to the sun by way of an elliptical orbit that will include seven "gravity-assist" flybys of Venus.

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

But these solar outbursts are poorly understood.

To shield the probe from the Sun's intense heat and radiation, the Parker probe is armed with a novel carbon-composite shield.

Parker Solar Probe spacecraft was launched on Sunday.

Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

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"We are ready. We have the ideal payload".

The problem on Saturday had to do with the gaseous helium pressure alarm on the spacecraft, officials said early Saturday. "We have not been able to answer these questions".

The probe will zip past Venus in six weeks and make a first rendezvous with the Sun a further six weeks after that.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometres), and the Parker probe will be within four percent of that distance.

The Parker Solar Probe during final pre-launch processing, its white heat shield visible at the top.

The delicate instrument comes equipped with an array of instruments and tools which will scan the Sun for solar winds and magnetic fields.

"We will also be listening for plasma waves that we know flow around when particles move", Fox added.

The unmanned spacecraft aims to get closer than any human-made object in history to the center of our solar system.

"We'll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690,000km/h (430,000mph) - NY to Tokyo in under a minute!" she told BBC News.