NASA launches historic probe to 'touch Sun'

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Sunday

The predawn skies lit up like daylight as a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy lifted off at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here, carrying the Parker Solar Probe on humanity's first mission to touch the sun.

The probe was ferried by one of the most powerful rockets now available, the Delta IV Heavy rocket, built and operated by United Launch Alliance.

Additionally, the third stage includes the STAR 49BV solid rocket motor, which is created to place the spacecraft into its final trajectory.

Dr Nicky Fox, the project scientist for NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission, was born and raised in Hitchin and went to school at St Francis' College in Letchworth. The spacecraft is scheduled to complete 24 orbits around the sun during its seven-year mission.

The landmark mission will allow scientists to make observations the likes of which have never been available to us, and as a space enthusiast and big-time appreciator of the Sun's life giving gig, I chose to tag along - or at least, my name did. "All I have to say is wow, here we go".

Sunday's flight marked the 129th successful flight for ULA, and the 10th for the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

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For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named. It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive. Well not quite to it but near it - the probe will be venturing to within a mere 3.8 million miles from the surface of the sun. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as the University of Chicago's Parker accurately predicted in 1958? In 1958, when Parker explained his concept of streaming particles from the Sun there were no takers.

"Today's launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort", said project manager Andy Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.

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

Parker will slingshot around Venus multiple times in order to gain momentum and with each orbit, it will gradually move closer and closer to the sun. We've studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury.

According to NASA officials, engineers added a heat shield made of a 4.5-inch thick carbon composite foam material between two carbon fiber face sheets to keep the instruments at the "relatively comfortable temperature" of 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius).


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