How PIO physicist laid foundation for NASA's mission to 'touch' the Sun

Carlton Robbins
August 14, 2018

Over the next two months, Parker Solar Probe will fly towards Venus, performing its first Venus gravity assist in early October - a manoeuvre a bit like a handbrake turn - that whips the spacecraft around the planet, using Venus's gravity to trim the spacecraft's orbit tighter around the Sun.

"Parker Solar Probe is a mission of extremes", Kelly Korreck, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said.

The launch was initially planned for Saturday morning.

Liftoff of the Dollars 1.5 billion mission took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the U.S. at 3:31 am EDT (1:01 pm Indian Standard Time).

The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named after a living individual, Eugene Parker.

Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said: 'The sun is full of mysteries. This is the agency's first mission to the sun and its outermost atmosphere, the corona.

The US space agency NASA has launched a probe that that will get closer to the Sun than any manmade object has ever done before. These findings, in turn, could serve a practical objective by helping space agencies anticipate and protect against solar flares that can disrupt satellites and electrical grids on Earth.

The unmanned spacecraft will zip past Venus in six weeks and make a first rendezvous with the Sun, the star closest to the Earth, a further six weeks after that.

Parker, who first detailed the possibility of solar winds all the way back in 1958, said of the launch "Wow, here we go!"

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While the Parker Solar Probe will travel through a space with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of the heat shield that faces the Sun will only get heated to about 1,400 degree Celsius.

Earth's average distance to the sun is 93 million miles. Most astronomers at that time thought of outer space as perfectly empty and bare, and the notion of solar wind sweeping particles through space didn't make sense to many people.

During the journey, the spacecraft will fly by Venus at speeds of 4,30,000 miles per hour, the equivalent of flying from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

Here is what you need to know about the Parker Solar Probe.

Thousands of spectators watched the Parker Solar Probe - the fastest object ever built - climb from its launch pad through a clear, starry night from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Eugene Parker was an astronomer at the University of Chicago in the 1950s.

"I realise that might not sound that close, but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart".

The probe was borne into the heavens atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The probe's instrument payload also includes a white-light camera that will take the kinds of pictures of the shimmering corona that are seen on Earth only during a total solar eclipse.

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.

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