Scientists Over the Moon for NASA's Solar Probe Launch to the Sun

Scientists Over the Moon for NASA's Solar Probe Launch to the Sun

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.

"At this point, spacecraft is up and happy", said a spokesman with United Launch Alliance, the company that operates the rocket.

The probe will get within 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometres) of the sun's surface after travelling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe - the size of a small auto and well under a ton - racing toward the sun.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", he added, describing the probe as one of NASA's "strategically important" missions.

The £1.17billion ($1.5billion) mission will study the sun's incredibly hot outer atmosphere, called the corona, as well as the charged particles that flow off the star and into the solar system.

If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will swing by Venus in about six weeks for a gravitational encounter that will help the spacecraft slow down still more. The trick was making the spacecraft compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds and durable enough to withstand the punishing environment.

A highly advanced heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick was devised to keep the probe from melting.

The probe will make its closest approach in 2024 when the next total solar eclipse is expected to be seen over the USA, and with that, the spacecraft will be visible. Altogether, it will make 24 close approaches over the next seven years.

With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

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The Sun is the source of solar wind , also known as space weather, and can be extremely destructive to our environment on Earth. This question remains unanswered since they were first described in 1958 by Eugene Parker, whom the probe is named after.

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NASA project manager Andy Driesman said: "We will fly by Venus seven times throughout the mission".

The probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun over seven years.

The car-sized probe will give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

Speaking after the launch, the 91-year-old told NASA TV: "It's a whole new phase and it's going to be fascinating throughout".

These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people.

Speechless is not a word typically used to describe Nicky Fox, mission scientist for the Parker Solar Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. "We're in for some learning over the next several years".

"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".

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

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