Solar probe to fly closer to sun than ever before

Solar probe to fly closer to sun than ever before

NASA's much-anticipated Parker Solar Probe - a spacecraft which it is said will "touch" the sun - has been launched from Cape Canaveral.

Its seven-year mission will bring it to within 3.8 million miles of the solar surface.

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October - a manoeuvre a bit like a handbrake turn - that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus's gravity to trim the spacecraft's orbit tighter around the Sun.

Looking on at launch was Eugene Parker, the University of Chicago astrophysicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958.

Scientists have sought these answers for more than 60 years, but the investigation requires sending a probe right through the unrelenting heat of the corona.

A last-minute technical problem delayed NASA's unprecedented flight to the sun.

Now it will spend the next seven years flying through the sun's outer atmosphere in what Nasa has called "a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star". This followed earlier trouble in the countdown.

Nasa's Parker Solar Probe set off yesterday on a seven-year odyssey to discover the secrets of the Sun, launching in a ball of flame that lit up the night sky.

"I have learnt a very important lesson of my professional scientific career from him: to be generous to the ideas of others, as long as they are not obviously wrong, and even if they contradict my own personal views", he said.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid. It is hoped the Parker probe will eventually get within 3.83 million miles of the sun, just four per cent of the total distance and closer than ever before.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation on Earth.

The probe failed to launch in its original Saturday slot after missing a 45-minute window, NASA said.

The car-sized observatory is created to endure temperatures of up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit as it flies within 4 million miles of the sun's surface. It is the first mission ever to attempt to touch the sun.

Yet the inside of the spacecraft will stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Eugene Parker had the vision to recognise the possibilities discussed in my thesis, and the magnanimity to write a glowing review of a thesis for an unknown student from a far away country - a PhD thesis that contradicted one of his own theories", he said.

Finally, after two firings of the second-stage engine, the Parker Solar Probe and its Northrup Grumman solid-fuel upper stage were released from the Delta 4.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hours - the fastest ever human-made object, fast enough to travel from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

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