NASA begins countdown to launch of first spacecraft to ‘touch Sun’

NASA begins countdown to launch of first spacecraft to ‘touch Sun’

Kenneth Drake
August 12, 2018

Humanity's first visit to a star begins this weekend. A probe created to get closer to the Sun's surface than any man-made object has before.

Eugene Parker can not say definitively whether the Parker Solar Probe launch scheduled for early Saturday morning will be a success.

The big launch is now less than 40 hours away, with the probe's first close approach to the sun slated for November.

The 65-minute window opened at 3:33 a.m., but the launch time was pushed back 20 minutes after minor issues with ground equipment before a mobile service tower could be rolled back from the rocket, and then concerns about sensor readings that delayed the start of fueling.

On Saturday, NASA plans to send the Parker Solar Probe up from Cape Canaveral Florida atop one of the largest rockets in the world.

You might think that the Sun is well understood, given that we've been aware of it for millennia, but it is a coquettish beast, with some significant mysteries.

The spacecraft's path to the sun runs past Venus. From Earth, it will head towards Venus, where it will execute the first of seven flybys. It will be used to help slow the probe, like pulling on a handbrake, and orient the probe so it's on a path to the sun.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation here on Earth. "We have to understand and characterize this place that we're travelling through".

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While it is hoped that the probe will retrieve some scientific data, the main goal is to simply record some images of the sun from a much closer distance than we are now capable of. Chief among those is why its outer atmosphere, called the corona, can reach scalding hot temperatures of some 2 million degrees Fahrenheit, while 1,000 miles below, the surface of the Sun is relatively "cool" at 10,000 degrees F. To that end, the PSP has four instruments on board-FIELDS, WISPR, SWEAP, and IS☉IS-that will allow it to make in situ measurements of the corona's properties and image its large-scale structure.

Zooming through space in a highly elliptical orbit, Parker Solar Probe will reach speeds up to 692,018 km per hour, setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history. Most weather satellites (GOES, Meteosat and Himawari, the ones that primarily keep tabs on Earth weather) have solar wind instruments.

The solar spacecraft mission exists because of his work in heliophysics, the study of the sun. This "Carrington Event" caused the Northern Lights to extend far into the southern United States, and it disrupted telegraph communications for weeks.

The probe is expected to endure wicked heat while zooming through the solar corona to study this outermost part of the stellar atmosphere that gives rise to the solar wind.

Fortunately, we could be getting answers much sooner than you might think. Such particles can interfere with satellite electronics, especially for satellites outside of Earth's magnetic field.

The spacecraft will trace how energy and heat move through the sun's atmosphere and explore what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles. The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe is set to launch early Sunday morning, on an ambitious new mission to attempt what has never been attempted before - to "touch" the Sun. The technology for surviving such a close solar encounter, while still being light enough for flight, wasn't available until now.