NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

A Delta IV rocket, carrying the Parker Solar Probe, lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Parker Solar Probe will venture closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft and is protected by a first-of-its-kind heat shield and other innovative technologies that will provide unprecedented information about the Sun.
(AP Photo/John Raoux)

A NASA spacecraft rocketed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, that was visible during last August’s total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted.

“All I can say is, ‘Wow, here we go.’ We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.

Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family. He proposed the existence of solar wind—a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun—60 years ago.

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn’t about to let it take off without him. Saturday morning’s launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

“I’m just so glad to be here with him,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. “Frankly, there’s no other name that belongs on this mission.”

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around as it climbed through a clear, star-studded sky. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe—the size of a small car and well under a ton—racing toward the sun.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometers), and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.

“Fly baby girl, fly!!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University said in a tweet right before liftoff. She urged it to “go touch the sun!”

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He came away impressed, saying it was like looking at the Taj Mahal for years in photos and then beholding “the real thing” in India.

“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.

The Parker probe will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record set by NASA’s Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. 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).

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission’s derring-do.

“To me, it’s still mind-blowing,” she said. “Even I still go, really? We’re doing that?”

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