NASA spacecraft embarks on journey toward the sun

Called Parker Solar Probe, NASA's research tool successfully launched on board a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket and is already en route towards its encounter with the solar corona.

The third stage is built to carry the agency's Parker Solar Probe in its intended orbit as part f a mission to study the effect of the sun's changing conditions on the solar system, Northrop said Sunday.

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.

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

This mission was launched aboard a Delta IV Heavy, which is comprised of three common core boosters each powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne (AR) RS-68A liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen engines producing a combined total of more than 2.1 million pounds of thrust. The spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun's heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will need to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft.

The first week of the mission will require the spacecraft to perform some tasks.

A Solar Probe Cup created to measure and assess the solar wind will not be behind the shield, but it is made of titanium-zirconium-molybdenum with a melting point of about 4,260 Fahrenheit.

Nasa Launch
Parker will slingshot around Venus the planet on the right of Earth

Among the curiosities is the apparent mismatch between the temperature of the Sun's visible surface, which measures about 5,500 degrees Celsius and the hundreds of times higher temperature of the corona, which reaches temperatures of about 5,500,000 degrees Celsius.

Parker Solar Probe carries four instrument suites created to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and capture images of the solar wind.

The Parker probe will start shattering records this fall. "We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. At these distances the sun will be over 500 times brighter than it appears to Earth, and particle radiation from solar activity will be harsh.

Q: What data will the probe be collecting, and what insights are scientists ultimately hoping to gain from these data? Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast. By better understanding the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature, Earthlings can better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, he noted. What is the secret of the scorching corona, which is more than 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, thousands of miles below?

"For scientists like myself, the reward of the long, hard work will be the unique set of measurements returned by Parker", said Szabo.

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", Fox said.

  • Joey Payne