Published: Mon, August 13, 2018
Science | By Cecil Little

Nasa launches first ever solar probe to 'touch the sun'

Nasa launches first ever solar probe to 'touch the sun'

The Solar Probe will fly as close as 3.8 million miles to the sun - more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before - revolutionising our understanding of the sun's atmosphere.

As these two opposing winds butt up against each other, scientists believe hydrogen accumulates in a wall-like structure.

The $1.5bn (£1.17bn) project is created to give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid. "We have not been able to answer these questions".

This is the first time that NASA has named a rocket after a living person, Parker, who proposed the existence of solar wind - a stream of charged particles released from the sun's upper atmosphere 60 years ago.

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The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard launching from the Mobile Service Tower on Sunday, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

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.

Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named.

"Now I have to turn from really biting my nails to thinking about the interesting things [to come] that I don't know yet, which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five, six, or seven years", he said.

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"It's a whole new phase, and it's going to be fascinating throughout".

"All I have to say is wow, here we go. We're in for some learning over the next several years". The two side boosters shut down and fell away as expected a bit less than four minutes after liftoff. A few seconds after that, the upper stage's single hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine ignited to continue the climb to space. But an 8-foot-wide heat shield out front - only 4.5 inches thick - should keep the probe's electronics safe at room temperature. 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. The small matter of touching the sun with a space probe, that's what. She urged it to "go touch the sun!" Seven Venus flybys are planned over the seven-year mission to fine-tune the trajectory, setting up the close-in aim points.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted. As it gets farther away from the sun and closer to the edge of the solar system, more accurate observations will allow scientists to confirm the presence of a hydrogen wall.

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