LIFTOFF FOR THE MIS­SION TO TOUCH THE SUN

Af­ter a few de­lays, NASA’s Parker So­lar Probe has been launched and is headed straight for the Sun

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The day fi­nally ar­rived on 12 Au­gust 2018 for the Parker So­lar Probe as NASA’s his­toric mis­sion to touch the Sun was launched from Space Launch Com­plex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion, Florida, United States. Af­ter some set­backs the day be­fore, the Parker So­lar Probe was even­tu­ally jet­ti­soned on a United Launch Al­liance Delta IV Heavy rocket at 3:31am EDT (7:31am UTC), just hours be­fore the rise of the star it was off to study.

“This mis­sion truly marks hu­man­ity’s first visit to a star that will have im­pli­ca­tions not just here on Earth, but how we bet­ter un­der­stand our uni­verse,” says Thomas Zur­buchen, as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor of NASA’s Sci­ence Mis­sion Direc­torate. “We’ve ac­com­plished some­thing that, decades ago, lived solely in the realm of sci­ence fic­tion.”

Be­ing roughly the same size as a small car, the Parker So­lar Probe is a mis­sion that is highly an­tic­i­pated by sci­en­tists around the globe. What this space­craft can tell ev­ery­one about the Sun will be a cat­a­lyst for a new era of so­lar re­search, par­tic­u­larly in the field of space weather. The Sun ran­domly erupts highly en­er­getic par­ti­cles that per­me­ate through space. It's im­por­tant to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of th­ese par­ti­cles, as the ones strong enough to reach Earth can be dam­ag­ing to our elec­tri­cal grid and even satel­lites, or cause po­ten­tial harm to as­tro­nauts in space.

Just over two hours af­ter launch the mis­sion op­er­a­tions man­ager re­ported that the space­craft was healthy and op­er­at­ing as nor­mal. This is the start of a jour­ney that will last ap­prox­i­mately seven years. Af­ter the suc­cess­ful launch the space­craft will next de­ploy its high-gain an­tenna and mag­ne­tome­ter boom in its first week in space – the first of a two-part de­ploy­ment of its elec­tric-field an­ten­nae. In Septem­ber 2018 there will be four weeks of in­stru­ment test­ing and, pro­vid­ing that ev­ery­thing is up to stan­dard, sci­ence op­er­a­tions can be­gin. The over­all jour­ney will con­sist of six fly­bys of Venus and 24 passes though the Sun’s lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. The clos­est ap­proach that the Parker So­lar Probe will make will take it within 6.1 mil­lion kilo­me­tres (3.8 mil­lion miles) of the Sun’s pho­to­sphere, trav­el­ling as fast as 700,000 kilo­me­tres per hour (430,000 miles per hour).

The Sun’s corona is a con­stant thorn in as­tronomers’ sides, as it is such a mys­tery. The corona is the layer of plasma that sur­rounds the Sun and has ex­treme tem­per­a­tures suc­ceed­ing a mil­lion Kelvin (mil­lions of de­grees of Cel­sius), which is far hot­ter than the star’s in­ner pho­to­sphere. This is the equiv­a­lent of get­ting hot­ter as you step fur­ther away from a fire, which is ridicu­lous in prin­ci­ple. With the Parker So­lar Probe fly­ing closer to the corona than ever be­fore, sci­en­tists can hope­fully de­crypt this code with the craft’s pris­tine suite of in­stru­ments.

In at­ten­dance at the launch in the early hours of the day was Dr Eu­gene Parker, for whom the mis­sion is named. Parker is an as­tro­physi­cist who laid the foun­da­tion to so­lar re­search and first the­o­rised the ex­is­tence of so­lar winds in 1958.

Dr Eu­gene Parker, a pi­o­neer in so­lar re­search, watched his name­sake space­craft launch on 12 Au­gust 2018

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