‘Touch the sun': NASA spacecraft hurtles toward our star

15 August, 2018, 23:07 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • Dr Nicky Fox just left of centre and other members of the Parker Solar Probe team

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Sunday. "Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionise our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close" he said.

Powered by a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, the launch took place just after 5.30am local time on Sunday morning.

Additionally, the third stage includes the STAR 49BV solid rocket motor, which is created to place the spacecraft into its final trajectory.

The probe, named after American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker, will have to survive hard heat and radiation conditions.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", he added, describing the probe as one of NASA's "strategically important" missions. "All I have to say is wow, here we go".

In its seven-year lifetime, the $1.5bn project Parker Solar Probe will get unprecedentedly closer to explore the Sun's mysteries. The probe will allow this by flying through the Sun's atmosphere, at a proximity never achieved before by any other man-made spacecraft, 3.8 million miles away from the sun's surface.

For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named.

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The project, with a $1.5 billion price tag, is the first major mission under NASA's Living With a Star program.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, a retired University of Chicago professor.

Parker also theorised an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is - contrary to what was expected by physics laws - hotter than the surface of the Sun itself. A microchip containing names of more than 1.1 million space enthusiasts who wished to have their names near the Sun, photos of Parker and a copy of his 1958 scientific paper that proposed the solar wind have been sent.

Additionally, the solar arrays used to power the probe will retract behind the TPS at each approach to the star.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said. "Facing brutal heat and radiation, the spacecraft will fly close enough to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and fly through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles", NASA reported.

While at the sun, the spacecraft will experience temperatures up to 2,500 F. Only a 4.5 inch heat shield and water cooling systems will protect the spacecraft and its four science instruments from the intense heat of the sun.

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