NASA's solar probe starts closest-ever approach to Sun

Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe is the first mission of its kind

Three months later, Parker Solar Probe will reach its first close approach of the Sun in November 2018, and will send the data back in December.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived exclusively in the realm of science fiction", he added, describing the probe as one of NASA's "strategically important" missions. While facing brutal heat and radiation, the mission will reveal fundamental science behind what drives the solar wind, the constant outpouring of material from the sun that shapes planetary atmospheres and affects space weather near Earth.

A last-minute technical problem delayed the rocket's planned Saturday launch, with the countdown halted with just one minute, 55 seconds remaining.

The Parker Solar Probe rocketed away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on Sunday.

The 8-foot (2.4-metre) heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft's scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.

Looking on at launch was Eugene Parker, the University of Chicago astrophysicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958.

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"Fly baby girl, fly!" project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University tweeted just before lift-off.

To "touch" the sun, the spacecraft will make a swing by Venus to shed some of its sideways momentum, allowing it to take a more straight shot toward the center of the solar system. The spacecraft will fly through the sun's outer atmosphere, the super-hot corona.

The probe will set earth-shattering records, getting seven times closer to the sun than ever before and eventually travelling at a speed of 430,000 miles per hour.

When closest to the sun, the 4½-inch-thick carbon-composite solar shields will have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The car-sized spacecraft will speed through space at 430,000mph - coming within four million miles of the Earth's nearest star by 2024.

At that point, the Probe will be moving at 430,000 miles per hour, and will become the fastest-moving object ever made by humans. Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its unsafe journey, the spacecraft's four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

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An artist's rendering of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun.

It was the third attempt to launch the Delta IV: initially, the rocket was to be launched on August 4 and after the transfer yesterday, August 11.

The Parker Solar Probe rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Scientists hope the mission will unlock some of the solar system's greatest secrets, including solar winds and energy particles.

The Aditya L1 satellite craft will not be getting close and personal with the sun but it will be inhabiting a halo orbit called the L1 point - where a satellite can get unobstructed views of the sun.

However the technology to make the spacecraft small and light enough to travel at incredible speeds - while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme changes in temperature - are only now possible. The 91-year-old emeritus professor will be present at the probe's launch.

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