NASA launches probe to go deep into Sun's scorching atmosphere

The mission costs £1.17billion

A NASA spacecraft zoomed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

A triple-core Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral just after 3:30 a.m. Sunday, momentarily turning night into day in a spectacle visible for miles along the Florida coast.

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.

The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed "the bravest little instrument", is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to "scoop up samples" of the Sun's atmosphere, according to Professor Justin Kasper of the University of MI. That will set up the first solar encounter in November.

Mankind's first mission to "touch" the Sun may have panned out differently had it not been for Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, whose intervention made it possible for a research paper proposing the existence of solar wind to get published 60 years ago.

Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said: 'The sun is full of mysteries. "Each time we fly by, we get closer and closer to the Sun".

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With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

It will be the fastest human-made object with speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour, able to survive million degree temperatures, orbiting the sun just 4 million miles from its surface, after a 90 million-mile trip, to get the first measurements of the sun's energy. The Parker Solar Probe is NASA's first ever named after a living person. "Parker Solar Probe will enable groundbreaking research, making space a safer to be". "It took a while for the Delta IV Heavy to clear the pad", Fox said, "but I was prepared for that, so I didn't panic". The cup will glow red when the probe makes its closest approach to the sun, sampling the solar wind and effectively touching the sun. "We've looked at it, we've studied it from missions that are close in - even as close as the planet Mercury - but we have to go there".

"Eugene Parker had the vision to recognise the possibilities discussed in my thesis, and the magnanimity to write a glowing review of a thesis for an unknown student from a far away country - a PhD thesis that contradicted one of his own theories", he said.

"So we're already in a region of very, very interesting coronal area", Fox said.

More than 1 million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind. As you might guess, NASA is relying on automation to make this work.

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