NASA launched a probe to 'touch the sun'

The mission costs £1.17billion

Embarking on a mission that scientists have been dreaming of since the Sputnik era, a Nasa spacecraft hurtled Sunday toward the sun on a quest to unlock some of its mysteries by getting closer than any object sent before.

"Three, two, one, and liftoff!" said a NASA commentator as the Parker Solar Probe lit up the dark night sky aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:31 am (0731 GMT). Eastern on Sunday after an initial launch attempt on Saturday was scrubbed because of a last-minute technical glitch.

The mission, over five decades in the making, will last 6 years and 11 months, and in this time, the Parker probe will orbit the sun 24 times.

A better understanding of the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with the power grids so vital to today's technology-dependent society, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa's science mission chief.

According to the U.S. space agency, Parker Solar Probe has been created to withstand the extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations for the mission.

Yet the inside of the spacecraft will stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Parker Solar Probe's solar arrays can produce 388 watts of power, depending on configuration.

It has been designed with shields to help it endure the intense heat and solar radiation.

Several researchers from MIT are collaborating on the mission, including co-principal investigators John Belcher, the Class of 1992 Professor of Physics, and John Richardson, a principal research scientist in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

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.

The Parker Solar Probe's departure promises to set a plethora of records, including speediest spacecraft, highest velocity while leaving Earth and closest solar approach.

Earth's average distance to the sun is 93 million miles.

The $1.5 billion probe is named after Eugene Parker, 91, a University of Chicago physicist who theorized in 1958 that the sun creates a solar wind - a notion that his peers found ridiculous until 1962, when the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Mariner 2 mission to Venus confirmed the theory.

Passing within 3.8 million miles of the sun's visible surface - well within the shimmering halo of the outer atmosphere, or corona - the spacecraft's heat shield will endure 2,500-degree heating while whipping past the star at a record 430,000 mph, fast enough to fly from NY to Tokyo in less than a minute.

Tools on board will measure high-energy particles associated with flares and coronal mass ejections, as well as the changing magnetic field around the Sun. All I can say is wow, here we go. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years.

Finally, after two firings of the second-stage engine, the Parker Solar Probe and its Northrup Grumman solid-fuel upper stage were released from the Delta 4.

Related news: