CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. —
A NASA spacecraft rocketed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.
The Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, that was visible during last August’s total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.
No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted.
“Fly baby girl, fly!!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before liftoff. She urged it to “go touch the sun!”
Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.
Parker watches namesake go
For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named. He proposed the existence of solar wind, a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun, 60 years ago.
“All I can say is, ‘Wow, here we go.’ We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” Parker said.
It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn’t about to let it take off without him. Saturday morning’s launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.
“I’m just so glad to be here with him,” said NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen. “Frankly, there’s no other name that belongs on this mission.”
The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe, the size of a small car and well under a ton, racing toward the sun.
From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometers), and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.