'Touch the sun': Nasa spacecraft hurtles towards our star

Parker Solar Probe

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on August 12, 2018.

The probe's destination is the sun's corona, which it will fly through over two dozen times, eventually coming within less than 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of our star's surface.

The craft will be protected from the heat of the sun by a revolutionary new heat shield.

Now 91, Professor Parker of the University of Chicago, the first living scientist to have a space probe named in his honour, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness his first rocket launch.

Zooming through space in a highly elliptical orbit, the Parker Solar Probe will reach speeds of up to 7,00,000 km per hour, setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history.

Looking on at the launch was astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who first theorised the existence of the solar wind in 1958.

Inside the solar atmosphere - a region known as the corona - the probe will provide observations of what drives the wide range of particles, energy and heat that course through the region.

Saturday's planned departure date was foiled by last-minute technical problems but NASA pointed out that there was no better day for the launch of a mission to "touch the sun" than Sunday.

The Parker Solar Probe was launched on Sunday in a mission to venture closer to the Sun than ever before. This followed earlier trouble in the countdown.

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The Parker Solar Probe launched successfully early this morning, on a seven year voyage to make 24 orbits of the Sun.

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", the $1.5 billion mission's project scientist, Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, told reporters in advance of today's launch.

The probe will set earth-shattering records, getting seven times closer to the sun than ever before and eventually travelling at a speed of 430,000 miles per hour.

"The outer sun-facing side of the shield will reach 2,500 Fahrenheit at closest approach to the sun".

But then, the launch of NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong. At closest approach, the solar shield of the probe will face temperatures approaching 1,377 degrees Celsius.

Parker Solar Probe's solar arrays can produce 388 watts of power, depending on configuration.

"It can impact our technology, it disrupts our communications, it can knock out satellites, it creates a hazardous environment for astronauts, and it also can even impact our power grids here on Earth", says Alex Young, NASA Heliophysicist.

Parker said he was "impressed" by the Parker Solar Probe, calling it "a very complex machine".

The Parker Solar Probe will have to travel about 430,000 miles per hour and use a high-tech heat shield to survive the trip. It could be due to interactions between electrically charged particles and the sun's powerful magnetic field, or it could be the result of countless "nanoflares" governed by another mechanism.

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