Parker Solar Probe launches from Cape Canaveral

14 August, 2018, 23:16 | Author: Sidney Guerrero
  • Parker Solar Probe

The unprecedented sun-skimming probe that lifted off today from the USA is set to study the "solar winds" proposed in the paper by Dr Eugene Newman Parker, who has now become the first living scientist to have mission named after him.

Zooming through space in a highly elliptical orbit, the Parker Solar Probe will reach speeds of up to 430,000 miles (690,000 km) per hour, fast enough to get from Washington to Beijing in less than one minute.

"We always say that luck has absolutely nothing to do with this business, but I will take all that I can get", ULA Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said in an interview Friday. Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 12, will transmit its first scientific observations in December. But the probe's heat shield will still get hotter than lava while its instruments study the hellish environment in unprecedented detail.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. "It will be the closest human made object to the Sun, going 96% of the distance from the Earth to the Sun". Parker Solar Probe will make its journey all the way to the Sun's atmosphere, or corona - closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history.

It's also unknown what causes the solar wind to accelerate from a steady breeze to a supersonic flow, or what sparks violent solar storms that eject blobs of material at millions of miles per hour.

The mission, which hopes to uncover the Sun's mysteries, will accumulate a gamut of data about its structure and magnetic and electric fields, as well as the energetic particles cruising near and away from Earth's star.

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"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.

As the Parker Solar Probe probe orbits the sun, it will experience extreme radiation and temperatures as high as 1,377C - close to the melting point of steel. Eventually Parker will dip down to just 3.8 million miles from the sun's surface. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

In order to survive, the spacecraft folds its solar panels into the shadows of its protective solar shade, leaving just enough of the specially angled panels in sunlight to provide power closer to the sun.

The craft was supposed to be launched yesterday but it was cancelled due to a helium gas sensor that surpassed a launch limit on the Delta IV-Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance said. The shield's front surface will be able to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft up to 2,500 degree Fahrenheit.

Parker said he was "impressed" by the Parker Solar Probe, calling it "a very complex machine". The Parker probe is expected to make 24 loops of the Sun over seven years.

Parker published research predicting the existence of solar wind in 1958, when he was a young professor at the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi institute. The probe's instrument payload also includes a white-light camera that will take the kinds of pictures of the shimmering corona that are seen on Earth only during a total solar eclipse.

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