NASA, ULA launch Parker Solar Probe on historic journey to touch sun

Dr Nicky Fox just left of centre and other members of the Parker Solar Probe team

The probe was ferried by one of the most powerful rockets now available, the Delta IV Heavy rocket, built and operated by United Launch Alliance.

Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

Of her work, she said: "The most satisfying thing about being a scientist is that you are always trying to discover something new, and every now and then, you actually succeed in this".

"The unique requirements of this mission made the Delta IV Heavy the ideal launch vehicle to deliver Parker Solar Probe into orbit with the highest precision", Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs said in a press release. This was the 37 launch of the Delta IV rocket, and the 10 in the Heavy configuration.

Parker Solar Probe will set its sights on the corona to solve long-standing, foundational mysteries of Sun, the US-based space agency said.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hour (692,000 kilometers per hour). 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.

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A highly advanced heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick was devised to keep the probe from melting. The probe, named after 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker, the first time Nasa christened a spacecraft after someone still alive, will become the closest man-made object to the Sun. "That lovely atmosphere that we saw during the total solar eclipse past year is about 300 times hotter than the surface of the sun, and that just doesn't make any sense".

Parker watched on from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as the spacecraft that bares his name - the first NASA mission to be named for a living individual - took flight.

The goal of this NASA launch is to get closer to coronal mass ejections and solar winds. "We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. NASA says it is tested up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Q: What data will the probe be collecting, and what insights are scientists ultimately hoping to gain from these data?

"Tested to withstand up to 1,650 degrees Celsius, the TPS can handle any heat the Sun can send its way, keeping nearly all instrumentation safe", said NASA.

The spacecraft's heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures. Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast.

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