Nasa probe blasts off on mission to 'touch the Sun'

Nasa probe blasts off on mission to 'touch the Sun'

"I realise that might not sound that close, but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart".

After being delayed on Saturday, the probe successfully launched at 3:31 a.m. ET Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, one of the world's most powerful rockets.

The Parker Solar Probe is created to expand our understanding of the sun, measuring electrical and magnetic fields, cataloging the ingredients of the solar wind and photographing the corona - the outer atmosphere that is millions of degrees hotter than the sun's surface.

Some scientists scoffed at University of Chicago physicist Eugene Parker's 1958 paper proposing the existence of a solar wind - a constant stream of particles flowing out from the sun that permeates the entire solar system.

The project, with a $1.5 billion (1.17 billion pounds) price tag, is the first major mission under NASA's Living With a Star program.

Astrophysicist Eugene Parker, centre, stands in front of the rocket carrying the solar probe named after him.

When closest to the sun, the 4½-inch-thick carbon-composite solar shields will have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Weighing 685 kilograms fully fueled, the Parker Probe is relatively small in comparison to other NASA science missions such as the Mars Science Laboratory which weighed about 3,900 kilograms at launch.

In 2012, one of NASA's sun-watching spacecraft, Stereo-A, detected an explosion comparable to the 1859 explosion.

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"We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star", said project scientist Nicky Fox of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, which designed the probe and manages the mission.

"We always say that luck has absolutely nothing to do with this business, but I will take all that I can get", ULA Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said in an interview Friday.

The mission's objectives include "tracing the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the sun's corona and solar wind, determining the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind and explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles".

"This mission truly marks the humanity's first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe", Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions. By the time Parker gets to its 22nd orbit of the sun, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph (690,000 kilometers per hour).

"If you go out to the moon or if you're planning on going out to Mars or elsewhere, these solar energetic particles provide potentially a very risky radiation environment for astronauts", McComas said. I'm very proud of the team that worked to make this happen. At the time, astronomers believed that the space between planets was a vacuum. His work revolutionized our understanding of the sun and interplanetary space.

The Parker Solar Probe will carry a chip with photos of Parker, his revolutionary paper and his message to the sun: "Let's see what lies ahead".

"She has to be able to look after herself", Fox said of the probe. It also holds a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun. I'm sure that there will be some surprises.