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
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