NASA finally launched its Parker Solar Probe spacecraft on its mission to “touch the sun” today.
The Delta IV rocket carrying the probe blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, this morning, after a series of delays.
The launch had been due to take place yesterday but was dramatically aborted just seconds from lift-off after a last minute technical hitch.
For the second straight day today, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns.
Among them was 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named, who proposed the existence of solar wind 60 years ago.
“Fly baby girl, fly!!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before lift-off, urging it to “go touch the sun!”
The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around.
Nasa needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the tiny Parker probe the size of a small car and weighing well under a ton racing toward the sun.
The probe, which aims to give Nasa an up-close look at how our nearest and dearest star works, will travel at 430,000 miles an hour – faster than any spacecraft in history.
The probe will use Venus’s gravity over the course of it’s 93million-miles journey over seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to “touch the sun”, as Nasa calls it.
Of course, the spacecraft won’t actually touch the sun – its temperature is a ludicrously toasty 5,500 degrees Celcius, and would instantly destroy any probe.
Instead, it will fly into the sun’s atmosphere, where it will observe from a “safe distance” of approximately four million miles away from the star’s surface – protected by a “cutting-edge heat shield”.
“The spacecraft will provide unprecedented information about our sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system to affect Earth and other worlds,” explained Nasa in a statement.
“The spacecraft will trace how energy and heat move through the Sun’s atmosphere and explore what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles.”
According to Nasa, this will be the closest-ever observation of a star, travelling through the Sun’s atmosphere, or “corona”.
The measurements and imaging captured by the Parker Solar Probe will “revolutionise our understanding of the corona and the Sun-Earth connection”, Nasa revealed.
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