NASA Parker Solar Probe rockets toward sun for closest look yet

Altogether, it will make 24 close approaches to the sun during the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

A triple-core Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral just after 3:30 a.m. Sunday, momentarily turning night into day in a spectacle visible for miles along the Florida coast.

The Parker Solar Probe is a satellite about the size of the vehicle, and it is even set to become the fastest moving manmade object history as it fires towards the sun, breaking the record previously set by Pedro Obiang's absolute banger against Spurs last season. While it won't be as unsafe as you might think - the corona is millions of degrees Fahrenheit, but very sparse - even a brief shield failure could expose the equipment and burn it beyond recognition.

The Parker Solar Probe will have to travel about 430,000 miles per hour and use a high-tech heat shield to survive the trip.

A mission to get this close has been on NASA's books since 1958.

The car-sized spacecraft will travel directly into the Sun's atmosphere, about four million miles from its surface - and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before, thanks to its innovative Thermal Protection System.

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University. 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.

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Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named. The spacecraft will fly through the sun's outer atmosphere, the super-hot corona.

"I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don't know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years", Parker said on NASA TV.

"This could be from hydrogen particles beyond the solar system interacting with the furthest reaches of the solar wind, creating what appears to be a boundary in the distance, according to the paper published this week in Geophysical Research Letters".

Even in a region where temperatures can reach more than a million degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius). "Why has it taken us 60 years?" The small matter of touching the sun with a space probe, that's what.

Good news everybody, NASA is about to send a massively expensive spacecraft to boldly go where no man has gone before. Seven Venus flybys are planned over the seven-year mission to fine-tune the trajectory, setting up the close-in aim points.

But Sunday's bid "went off like clockwork", said NASA launch manager Omar Baez. "We actually slow down just a little bit, and that allows us to shrink our orbit", Fox explained.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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