Nasa launches probe to go deep into Sun’s scorching atmosphere

The mission costs £1.17billion

The mission costs £1.17billion

Launching in a ball of flame that lit up the night sky, Nasa's Parker Solar Probe today set off on its seven-year odyssey to unlock the secrets of the Sun.

After launching on the Delta-IV Heavy rocket - which sounds cool and probably is, yeah, fairly cool - at 03:31 local time in Florida (07:31 GMT) on Sunday, Nasa confirmed the flight trajectory "looked good" and that the probe had successfully separated from the rocket.

NASA hopes the probe will help determine which parts of the sun are providing the energy source for solar winds and solar particles, and how they accelerate to such high speeds.

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

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The probe, about the size of a vehicle, will fly through the Sun's atmosphere and will come as close as 3.8 million miles to the star's surface, well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come before (Earth's average distance to the Sun is 93 million miles), according to NASA. A voice could be heard saying: "A daring mission to shed light on the mysteries of our closest star". Now 91, Parker, the first living scientist to have a space probe named in his honor, flew to Cape Canaveral to witness his first rocket launch.

Sensors will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times and it will correct itself if it ends up at the wrong angle.

"I really have to turn from biting my nails and getting it launched to thinking about all the interesting things which I don't know yet, and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years", Parker said. The carbon composite shield will experience 2,500-degree heating on the side facing the sun while keeping temperatures at a comfortable 85 degrees in the shade where the probe's instruments and critical systems are located.

"This could be from hydrogen particles beyond the solar system interacting with the furthest reaches of the solar wind, creating what appears to be a boundary in the distance, according to the paper published this week in Geophysical Research Letters". She urged it to "go touch the sun!"

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The Parker Solar Probe's launch marked a special milestone for one solar scientist: Eugene Parker.

It will make 24 passes through the corona during its seven-year mission.

"All I can say is "Wow, here we go, we're in for some learning over the next several years", he said when asked how he felt.

The launch speed was clocked at 69,000 kilometers per hour and it is expected to top out at more than ten times that speed while in space due to the Sun's gravitational pull.

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Nicky Fox, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab - who were instrumental in the building of the spacecraft - said: "We'll be going where no spacecraft has dared go before - within the corona of a star". "We actually slow down just a little bit, and that allows us to shrink our orbit", Fox explained.

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