NASA Launches Spacecraft for Closest-Ever Journey to the Sun

NASA's First Ever Parker Solar Probe Mission to Touch The Sun Launches in Second Attempt

Roughly the size of a small auto, PSP will get almost seven times closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

Liftoff of the United States dollars 1.5 billion mission took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the USA at 3:31 am EDT (1:01 pm Indian Standard Time).

The probe is created to study the sun's ultra-hot outer atmosphere, called the corona, among other mysteries of our star.

The mission had been expected to launch on Saturday, but was delayed at the last minute due to a technical problem.

This will be within 6 million kilometres of the sun's surface, closer than any other spacecraft has been before.

Now 91, Professor Parker of the University of Chicago, the first living scientist to have a space probe named in his honour, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness his first rocket launch.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid. 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 sun is 93 million miles from Earth.

But then, the launch of NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong.

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Nasa yesterday blasted off a US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion) spacecraft towards the Sun, on a historic mission to protect the Earth by unveiling the mysteries of unsafe solar storms.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "All I can say is wow, here we go. Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explained Dr Nicky Fox, the British-born project scientist who is affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Parker Solar Probe's solar arrays can produce 388 watts of power, depending on configuration. Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast.

"Until you actually go there and touch the Sun, you really can't answer these questions", project scientist Nicola Fox told CBS News.

"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.

In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of almost seven years.

The 8-foot (2.4-metre) 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.

"We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams", Fox said.

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