We just got one step closer to “touching” the sun.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a NASA rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe was successfully launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — marking the beginning of a seven-year mission that aims to get the probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has gone before.
The car-sized probe was launched aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket at 3.31 a.m. Eastern on Sunday after an initial launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed because of a last-minute technical glitch.
NASA says the probe will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere over the course of its mission and will get to within about four million miles of the star’s surface.
The spacecraft will face heat and radiation “like no spacecraft before it,” the agency said. The probe’s 4.5-inch-thick, 8-foot-wide carbon-composite shield has been built to endure temperatures of up than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA hopes the probe — which was named in honor of Dr. Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago professor who successfully predicted the existence of solar wind in 1958 — will help scientists crack some of the sun’s greatest mysteries, including the secret of the corona’s incredibly high temperatures and the origins of and the mechanism behind the acceleration of solar wind.
“The Sun’s energy is always flowing past our world,” Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement of the mission.“And even though the solar wind is invisible, we can see it encircling the poles as the aurora, which are beautiful ― but reveal the enormous amount of energy and particles that cascade into our atmosphere. We don’t have a strong understanding of the mechanisms that drive that wind toward us, and that’s what we’re heading out to discover.”
Scientists have been debating these questions for decades but NASA said technology has only come far enough in the past few decades to make the solar mission a reality.
Unlike many planetary exploration missions, which primarily orbit the planet itself, the Parker probe will be swooping closer and closer to the sun by way of an elliptical orbit that will include seven “gravity-assist” flybys of Venus.
The probe will reach tremendous speeds as it orbits the sun. According to NASA, its top speed is expected to hit 430,000 miles per hour. That’s “fast enough to get from New York City to Tokyo in under a minute,” the agency said.
According to CNET, the probe is expected to reach the sun in November.