Published: Tue, August 14, 2018
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

Solar so good...new probe heads for sun

Solar so good...new probe heads for sun

The goal is to help scientists figure out what makes the corona hotter than the sun's visible surface and what accelerates charged particles to enormous velocities, producing the solar wind that streams away from the corona in all directions.

"All I can say is, 'Wow, here we go.' We're in for some learning over the next several years", said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.

It will face brutal heat and radiation conditions to provide researchers with the closest observations of a star.

Over the course of seven years, Parker will make 24 loops around our star to study the physics of the corona, the place where much of the important activity that affects the Earth seems to originate.

The probe will make its closest approach in 2024 when the next total solar eclipse is expected to be seen over the USA, and with that, the spacecraft will be visible.

Nasa's most powerful rocket, which is carrying the satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida in the early hours of Sunday morning. It is set to fly into the Sun's corona within 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km) of the solar surface, seven times closer than any other spacecraft.

A mighty, 23-storey Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Parker probe, which is the size of a small vehicle and weighs well under a ton into the clear sky, as its namesake looked on.

NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, was thrilled not only with the launch, but Parker's presence.

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

Parker, who first detailed the possibility of solar winds all the way back in 1958, said of the launch "Wow, here we go!" It'll spend its first week in space deploying its high-gain antenna, the first part of its electric field antennas and its magnetometer.

Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations. The spacecraft reached about 27 million miles near the sun, covering nearly one-third of total 93 million miles distance from the Earth to Sun. With each orbit, it will be propelled closer and closer to the sun, ultimately circling the star at at a distance that is less than 10 radii of the sun.

A worst-case scenario could cost up to US$2 trillion in the first year alone and take a decade to fully recover from, experts have warned.

"The spacecraft must operate in the sun's corona, where temperatures can reach millions of degrees", Brown told ABC News via email.

More knowledge of solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

According to NASA, the mission to reach the sun's atmosphere will take about seven years.

The 8-foot (2.4-metre) heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft's scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.

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