Lift off! NASA's 'touch the sun' Parker Solar Probe mission launches

Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe is the first mission of its kind

The probe is named after Eugene Parker, a solar physicist, who in 1958 first predicted the existence of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles and magnetic fields that flow continuously from the sun.

A blazing United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket rose into the night sky from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:31 a.m. ET (12:31 a.m. PT), one day after concerns over a data glitch forced a postponement.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

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. A Sun-skimming mission like Parker Solar Probe has been a dream of scientists for decades, but only recently has the required technology - like the heat shield, solar array cooling system, and fault management system - been available to make such a mission a reality.

Sunday's flight marked the 129th successful flight for ULA, and the 10th for the Delta IV Heavy rocket. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles, easily beating the current record of 27 million miles set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

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Obviously, this is vital stuff - nothing has ever been closer to the surface of the sun before, so that's something.

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission's derring-do. All I can say is wow, here we go.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions.

Among the mysteries scientists hope to solve: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface, which is 5,500 degrees Celsius?

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun", Fox said. Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its risky journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

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If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will swing by Venus in about six weeks for a gravitational encounter that will help the spacecraft slow down still more.

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.

They're going to get up close and personal with coronal mass ejections, and solar winds, which do - funnily enough - have real implications on communication systems here on Earth. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

PSP is carrying four instrument suites created to study the sun's magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

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