NASA blasts off historic probe to ‘touch Sun’ in a 7 year mission

AMPA: NASA blasted off a $1.5 billion spacecraft toward the Sun today on a historic mission to protect the Earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.

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“Three, two, one and liftoff!” said a NASA commentator as the Parker Solar Probe soared skyward aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31am (0731 GMT).

The unmanned spacecraft aims to get closer than any human-made object in history to the center of our solar system.

The probe is designed to plunge into the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

It is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth.

NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to “touch the Sun.”

In reality, it should come within 3.83 million miles (6.16 million kilometers) of the Sun’s surface, close enough to study the curious phenomenon of the solar wind and the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, which is 300 times hotter than its surface.

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

These solar outbursts are poorly understood, but pack the potential to wipe out power to millions of people.

A worst-case scenario could cost up to two trillion dollars in the first year alone and take a decade to fully recover from, experts have warned.

“The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth,” said Justin Kasper, a project scientist and professor at the University of Michigan.

Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

Heat shield
The probe is guarded by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick, enabling the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the fiery star.

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).

If all works as planned, the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The goal for the Parker Solar Probe is to make 24 passes through the corona during its seven-year mission.

“The sun is full of mysteries,” said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

“We are ready. We have the perfect payload. We know the questions we want to answer.”

AFP

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