NASA launches historic probe to ‘touch sun’

NASA on Sunday launched a $1.5-billion spacecraft toward the Sun on a historic mission to protect the Earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.

“Three, two, one, zero, and liftoff! Of the mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star, the Sun,” said the narrator on NASA TV. The launch lit the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31 am (0731 GMT).

Less than an hour later, mission managers confirmed that the spacecraft separated from the rocket as planned and was safely on its journey.

“At this point, spacecraft is up and happy,” said a spokesman with United Launch Alliance, the company that operates the rocket.

The unmanned spacecraft’s mission is to get closer than any human-made object ever to the centre of our solar system, plunging into the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

The probe is guarded by an ultra-powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth.

Strange veil

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to “touch the Sun.”

In reality, it should come within 3.83 million miles (6.16 million kilometres) 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.

The car-sized probe will give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people.

A worst-case scenario could cost up to two trillion dollars in the first year alone and take a decade for full recovery, experts say.

“The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth,” said Justin Kasper, a project scientist and professor at the University of Michigan.

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.

Heat shield

The spacecraft is protected from melting during its close shave with the Sun by a heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimetres) thick.

Even in a region where temperatures can reach more than a million degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius).

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

The probe is set to make 24 passes through the corona collecting data.

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

“We are ready. We have the perfect payload. We know the questions we want to answer.”

‘All I have to say is ‘Wow”

The spacecraft is the only NASA probe in history to be named after a living person — 91 — year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.

Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral, and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person.

“All I have to say is wow, here we go. We are in for some learning over the next several years,” Parker told NASA television.

NASA chief of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Parker is an “incredible hero of our scientific community.”

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA’s most “strategically important” missions.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only recently did the heat shield technology capable of protecting sensitive instruments become available.

Tools on board will measure high-energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun.

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 New York to Tokyo in one minute.

© Agence France-Presse

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