Spacewatch: Firing up for a close encounter with the sun

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

At that moment, the space agency's Parker Solar Probe, Nasa's historic mission to touch the Sun, will have its first opportunity to lift off.

The reason for the delay was not immediately clear, but was called for after a gaseous helium alarm was sounded in the last moments before liftoff, officials said.

The Parker Solar Probe will break multiple records, starting literally when it launches on Saturday.

Successive flybys will be closer, culminating, in 2024, with a series of encounters just 3.8m miles above the sun's surface.

Scientists also hope the probe can help them to answer why the corona, the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere, is 300 times hotter than its surface.

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

To survive the heat, the probe is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick heat shield made of reinforced carbon. In reality, it will aim to eventually reach about 3.8 million miles away, well within the sun's atmosphere.

Image: The spacecraft can withstand enormous heat. Although the corona reaches millions of degrees, it's a wispy, tenuous environment and so the spacecraft won't need to endure such severe temperatures.

Scorching, yes? But if all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 deg F (29 deg C).

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

The tools on board will measure the expanding corona and continually flowing atmosphere known as the solar wind, which solar physicist Eugene Parker first described back in 1958.

Following the launch the spacecraft will head towards Venus. "In addition to using a powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, Parker Solar Probe will perform seven Venus gravity assists over its seven-year mission to shed sideways speed into Venus' well of orbital energy".

Solar wind can create a whole host of issues for humans - from messing with Global Positioning System communications to exposing astronauts in space to high radiation - and the Parker Solar Probe is launching on a mission to figure out where it comes from. "Sometimes you just see, like how over a lifetime, things just come together and create these wonderful stories, these leaps going forward".

"We will also be listening for plasma waves that we know flow around when particles move", Fox added.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object.

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