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NASA Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to high-five the sun

14 August 2018

On the final three orbits, PSP flies to within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface - more than seven times closer than the current record-holder for a close solar pass, the Helios 2 spacecraft, which came within 27 million miles in 1976, and about a tenth as close as Mercury, which is, on average, about 36 million miles from the Sun.

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.

In this Thursday, August 9, 2018, astrophysicist Eugene Parker attends a news conference about the Parker Solar Probe named after him, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Less than 2 minutes before its planned liftoff on Saturday (Aug. 11), a helium pressure alarm went off on the Delta IV Heavy, thwarting the day's launch attempt.

Unlike many planetary exploration missions, which primarily orbit the planet itself, the Parker probe will be swooping closer and closer to the sun by way of an elliptical orbit that will include seven "gravity-assist" flybys of Venus.

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

The Parker Solar Probe had successfully reached space and phoned home.

Yet the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The launch of the Parker probe marks the launch of a hectic era in solar physics.

The probe will orbit the blistering corona, withstanding unprecedented levels of radiation and heat, in order to beam back to Earth data on the sun's activity.

It aims to get closer than any human-made object in history to the centre of our solar system.

Among its many purposes the Parker Solar Probe will try to answer two key questions surrounding the Sun.

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

Passing within 3.8 million miles of the sun's visible surface - well within the shimmering halo of the outer atmosphere, or corona - the spacecraft's heat shield will endure 2,500-degree heating while whipping past the star at a record 430,000 mph, fast enough to fly from NY to Tokyo in less than a minute. It could be due to interactions between electrically charged particles and the sun's powerful magnetic field, or it could be the result of countless "nanoflares" governed by another mechanism. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years.

"All I have to say is wow, here we go".

The name "solar wind" was given by Eugene Parker, a professor emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, after whom the probe is named. "We are in for some learning over the next several years", Parker told NASA television. This distance is about 8.5 solar radii, very close to the region where the solar wind is accelerated.

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

NASA Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to high-five the sun