A Sputnik-era dream: NASA spacecraft hurtles toward the sun

Posted August 13, 2018

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a NASA rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe was successfully launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - marking the beginning of a seven-year mission that aims to get the probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has gone before.

The probe's destination is the sun's corona, which it will fly through over two dozen times, eventually coming within less than 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of our star's surface.

The mission, which has been sought after for 60 years, was first scheduled to launch on July 31, but was pushed back several times due to a variety of technical issues.

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

If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will swing by Venus in about six weeks for a gravitational encounter that will help the spacecraft slow down still more.

Unlike many planetary exploration missions, which primarily orbit the planet itself, the Parker probe will be swooping closer and closer to the sun by way of an elliptical orbit that will include seven "gravity-assist" flybys of Venus.

Learning more about the solar wind also will help scientists better predict the effects of solar storms and the impact of the solar wind on Earth's magnetic field, wreaking havoc with communications, power grids and navigation.

"Fly baby girl, fly!" project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University said in a tweet right before liftoff. The closest we've been before is around 27 million miles, so we're getting there.

The £1.17billion ($1.5billion) mission will study the sun's incredibly hot outer atmosphere, called the corona, as well as the charged particles that flow off the star and into the solar system. Zurbuchen expects the data from even this early stage to yield top science papers.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometres), and the Parker probe will be within four percent of that distance.

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.

"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. "It took a while for the Delta IV Heavy to clear the pad", Fox said, "but I was prepared for that, so I didn't panic". It's going to make 24 orbits of the sun and will break speed records by travelling at 430,000 miles per hour.

"So we're already in a region of very, very interesting coronal area", Fox said.

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It is said the data gathered by the car-sized probe will "revolutionise" our understanding of the star, which has a huge impact on Earth.