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NASA launched a probe to 'touch the sun'

13 August 2018

NASA on Sunday successfully launched the Parker Solar Probe, the USA space agency's historic small car-size probe to 'touch the Sun, ' from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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 probe is created to plunge into the Sun's mysterious atmosphere, known as the corona, coming within 6.16 million kilometers of its surface during a seven-year mission.

The launch was called off at the last minute on Saturday after a gaseous helium pressure red alarm emerged that the scientists did not have enough time to troubleshoot.

A highly advanced heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick was devised to keep the probe from melting.

Parker Solar Probe, which is expected to complete 24 orbits of the Sun, will use Venus to adjust its course.

Over the next seven years, there will be 24 close approaches to the sun.

In order to reach an orbit around the sun, the Parker Solar Probe will take seven flybys of Venus that will essentially give a gravity assist, shrinking its orbit over the course of almost seven years.

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

A mission to get this close has been on NASA's books since 1958. The spacecraft will also be prepared for the first of seven planned Venus flybys scheduled for October 2. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hours - the fastest ever human-made object, fast enough to travel from NY to Tokyo in one minute. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times.

These solar outbursts are poorly understood, but pack the potential to wipe out power to millions of people.

"We are going to be in an area that is so exciting, where solar wind - we believe - will be accelerating", said NASA planetary science division director Jim Green.

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

"Now I have to turn from really biting my nails to thinking about the interesting things [to come] that I don't know yet, which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five, six, or seven years", he said. As you might guess, NASA is relying on automation to make this work.

The probe will constantly be sending back data on solar winds and energy particles. "We've looked at it, we've studied it from missions that are close in - even as close as the planet Mercury - but we have to go there".

NASA launched a probe to 'touch the sun'