Parker Solar Probe launches on mission to 'touch the sun'

NASA successfully launches spacecraft that will explore the sun

NASA finally launched its Parker Solar Probe spacecraft on its mission to "touch the sun" today.

Dr Nicky Fox of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said: "I realise that might not sound that close, but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart".

The other great mystery is the behaviour of 'solar wind, ' a stream of charged particles emitted by the sun to release energy.

To handle the heat it has been covered with a special 4.5 inch thick carbon-composite shield capable of withstanding temperatures up to 1,650C.

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.

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.

Instruments on board may also help to explain why the corona is hotter than the sun's surface by several orders of magnitude.

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The Delta-IV Heavy rocket - which was carrying the probe - launched at 03:31 local time (07:31 GMT).

The spacecraft is the only NASA probe in history to be named after a living person - in this case, 91-year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.

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.

The problem on Saturday had to do with the gaseous helium pressure alarm on the spacecraft, officials said early Saturday.

Parker said last week that he was "impressed" by the Parker Solar Probe, calling it "a very complex machine".

The spacecraft, which will plunge into the sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield. "Each time we fly by, we get closer and closer to the Sun".

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object.

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