NASA's Parker Solar Probe heads for the Sun

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Nasa's mission to "touch the Sun" is under way following the launch of the Parker Solar Probe early on Sunday morning. NASA launched a space probe early Sunday that will go closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before, the agency announced.

NASA launched a solar probe that is expected to swing through the superheated corona of the Sun, using advanced heat shields and physics to answer some mysteries about the star that is the source of all life back on Earth.

Among the curiosities is the apparent mismatch between the temperature of the Sun's visible surface, which measures about 5,500 degrees Celsius and the hundreds of times higher temperature of the corona, which reaches temperatures of about 5,500,000 degrees Celsius.

A Decatur-based rocket building company United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced the successful launch of the Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe on Saturday.

"The spacecraft is power positive and that's where we want to be", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.

By the time the probe gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 miles per hour.

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.

Several other designs on the spacecraft keep Parker Solar Probe sheltered from the heat.

"Wow, here we go". A mission like Parker Solar Probe has been a dream of scientists for decades, but only recently has the required technology - like the heat shield, solar array cooling system, and fault management system - been available to make such a mission a reality.

The first week of the mission will require the spacecraft to perform some tasks.

The probe is named after Eugene Parker, a solar physicist, who in 1958 first predicted the existence of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles and magnetic fields that flow continuously from the sun. He said it was like looking at photos of the Taj Mahal for years and then beholding the real thing in India. Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its unsafe journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind. What is the secret of the scorching corona, which is more than 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, thousands of miles below? "We at NASA and the Launch Services Program are thrilled to be part of this mission".

But this is why NASA wants to study the sun in the first place.

The 8-foot (2.4-meter) heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft's scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.

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