NASA launches first mission to 'touch Sun'

NASA launches first mission to 'touch Sun'

NASA launches first mission to 'touch Sun'

NASA has launched Parker Solar Probe, the USA space agency's historic small car-sized probe, on its seven-year space odyssey that will take it gradually closer to the Sun at 3.8 million miles.

A Decatur-based rocket building company United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced the successful launch of the Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe on Saturday. The mission is targeted to last seven years, and make 24 orbits of the star, eventually approaching within just 3.8 million miles of the Sun's surface at its closest transit. This rocket will take it to the center of our galaxy but then what? With a reflective heat shield comprised mostly of carbon foam, the compact car-sized probe is built to withstand the incredibly scorching heat of the sun. This was the 37 launch of the Delta IV rocket, and the 10 in the Heavy configuration.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hour (692,000 kilometers per hour). To perform these unprecedented investigations, 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 that reach almost 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. A special component of SWEAP is a small instrument that will look around the protective heat shield of the spacecraft directly at the sun, the only instrument on the spacecraft to do so. The probe, named after 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the first time Nasa christened a spacecraft after someone still alive, will become the closest man-made object to the Sun.

Scientists hope this close encounter will give them a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

The Parker Solar Probe will soon be speeding toward the Sun at 430,000 miles per hour (192 km/s) - breaking the previous record held by the Helios-B spacecraft and making it the fastest spacecraft to date.

After St Francis', Dr Fox studied at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London, the University of Surrey and then Imperial College again, before moving to the USA to join NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, near Washington DC.

For more than 60 years, scientist have wondered how energy and heat move through the solar corona and what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. NASA hired the Hopkins lab in 2008 to design the probe and its heat shield.

Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral, and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as the University of Chicago's Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

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