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

Michele Stevens
August 16, 2018

It was actually a fuel dump from the launch of NASA's Parker Solar Probe, which took off on Sunday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Named after Chicago physicist Eugene Parker, the mission seeks to answer questions Parker set down in his groundbreaking paper theorizing the existence of solar wind all the way back in 1958.

The Parker Solar Probe carries a lineup of instruments to study the Sun both remotely and in situ, or directly.

The Delta-IV Heavy rocket - which was carrying the probe - launched at 03:31 local time (07:31 GMT).

The car-sized probe will travel directly into the Sun's atmosphere, about 3.8 million miles from its surface - and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before, thanks to its innovative Thermal Protection System.

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.

In order to unlock the mysteries of the Sun's atmosphere, the probe will use Venus' gravity during seven flybys over almost seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun.

"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.

"We'll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690,000km/h (430,000mph) - NY to Tokyo in under a minute!" she told BBC News.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Solar eruptions and solar winds that move into the environment of space will be observed from close up, giving scientists a better idea of how they accelerate and what their life cycle looks like.

These solar outbursts are poorly understood, but have the potential to wipe out power to millions of people.

Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

The probe is guarded by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick, enabling the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the fiery star.

The sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius).

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the Sun".

"Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explained Dr Nicky Fox, the British-born project scientist who is affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

"All I have to say is wow, here we go. We're in for some learning over the next several years", he said after watching the lift-off from the scene.

Scientists have wanted to build a spacecraft like this for more than 60 years, but only in recent years did the heat shield technology advance enough to be capable of protecting sensitive instruments.

The solar wind is a stream of charged particles and magnetic fields that flow continuously from the Sun.

The spacecraft was visible over the Sunshine Coast on Sunday night, after Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by technical issues.

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