NASA, ULA launch Parker Solar Probe on historic journey to touch sun

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to the Sun at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. August 12, 2018.

Among the mysteries scientists hope to solve: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface, which is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius)?

"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.

As a key component of the mission myself, I'll touch base again soon with updates from the Sun.

Back in March, NASA invited members of the public to submit their names to be included on a memory card that is now mounted on the Parker Probe as it hurtles through space.

This first flyby will place Parker Solar Probe in position in early November to fly as close as 15 million miles from the Sun - within the blazing solar atmosphere, known as the corona - closer than anything made by humanity has ever gone before.

The incredibly resilient vessel, vaguely shaped like a lightbulb the size of a small vehicle, was launched early in the morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. 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.

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers will vicariously explore the Sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, in an effort to better understand the complexities of the solar wind Parker theorized 60 years ago.

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe - it's ours, after all - and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions.

Nothing from planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

According to Szabo, "NASA was planning to send a mission to the solar corona for decades, however, we did not have the technology that could protect a spacecraft and its instruments from the heat". Speaking to the Multiverse programme run by the University of California at Berkeley, she said her father propped her up in front of the television so she could witness the historic event. "Even I still go, 'Really?" It is anticipated that the surface of the shield will be heated to around 1,400°C, with the instrumentation in the spacecraft body kept at a balmy 30°C.

A mission to get up close and personal with our star has been on NASA's books since 1958.

While "only the size of a car", the satellite is tough enough to withstand temperatures of 1,300C and to travel at speeds of up to 430,000mph, the newspaper adds.

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