NASA yesterday launched a US$1.5 billion spacecraft toward the sun on a historic mission to protect the Earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.
“Three, two, one, zero, and liftoff! Of the mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, a daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star, the sun,” said the narrator on NASA TV.
The launch lit the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31am. Less than an hour later, mission managers confirmed that the spacecraft separated from the rocket as planned and was safely on its journey.
Photo: AFP / NASA / Bill Ingalls
“At this point, spacecraft is up and happy,” said a spokesman with United Launch Alliance, the company that operates the rocket.
The uncrewed spacecraft’s mission is to get closer than any human-made object ever to the center of our solar system, plunging into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.
The probe is guarded by a powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth.
While NASA has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to “touch the sun,” in reality, it should come within 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 will give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.
“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.
The probe is set to make 24 passes through the corona collecting data.
The spacecraft is the only NASA probe in history to be named after a living person — 91-year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.
Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person.
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