Published: Wed, August 15, 2018
Science | By

A Sputnik-era dream: NASA spacecraft hurtles toward sun

A Sputnik-era dream: NASA spacecraft hurtles toward sun

NASA on Sunday successfully launched the Parker Solar Probe, the USA space agency's historic small car-size probe to "touch the Sun", from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But that was her reaction in the wee hours today (Aug. 12) as she watched NASA's Parker Solar Probe launch on an unprecedented mission to the sun.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. Well not quite to it but near it - the probe will be venturing to within a mere 3.8 million miles from the surface of the sun.

But Sunday's bid "went off like clockwork", said NASA launch manager Omar Baez.

Delta IV Heavy launched the spacecraft at a top speed of over 121 miles per second.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe", said in a statement Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

A hot ticket: The probe is on a almost seven-year mission that will take it closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has yet traveled.

This is because "in space, the temperature can be thousands of degrees without providing significant heat to a given object or feeling hot".

NASA's Parker Solar Probe inside one half of its 62.7-foot-tall fairing.

The landmark mission will allow scientists to make observations the likes of which have never been available to us, and as a space enthusiast and big-time appreciator of the Sun's life giving gig, I made a decision to tag along - or at least, my name did.

The memory card also carries photos of the probe's namesake, heliophysicist Eugene Parker, and a copy of his groundbreaking 1958 scientific paper in which he first theorized the existence of solar wind - the steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun.

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the Sun". "You take this thing you've been working on for close to a decade, you put it on I don't know how many hundreds of pounds of propellant, you launch it into space, and then 45 minutes later, after separation, it says hello". But Sunday gave way to complete success. "We at NASA and the Launch Services Program are thrilled to be part of this mission".

Naming NASA's first sun-bound mission after Parker might be the ultimate homage because already in 1962, NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft found evidence of charged particles on its way to Venus, and confirmed his predictions. It has been outfitted with a heat shield created to keep its instruments at a tolerable 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) even as the spacecraft faces temperatures reaching almost 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius) at its closest pass.

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