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NASA Launches Parker Solar Probe For Mission To ‘Touch The Sun’

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NASA's historic Parker Solar Probe successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Aug. 12, lifting off at exactly 3:31 a.m. after a pushback on Saturday.

The probe, roughly the size of a small car, flew on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, which is known as one of the world's most powerful rockets.

Parker Solar Probe is NASA's first mission to the sun, particularly to its hottest and outermost atmosphere, the corona.

By 5:33 a.m., the mission's operations manager reported that the spacecraft successfully separated and the probe was launched into space.

Aside from the Parker Solar Probe being the closest ever that NASA can get to the sun, it is also the first-ever mission to be named after a living researcher, Eugene Parker. He was the physicist who first concluded in 1958 that solar wind existed.

Historic Journey To Touch The Sun

For its first week in space, the Parker Solar Probe will deploy its magnetometer boom and the first out of two deployments of its electric field antennas. All instruments aboard the spacecraft will be tested early in September. Testing will last approximately four weeks. Official science operations will subsequently begin.

The probe will fly toward Venus over the next two months. Early in October, it will perform a gravity assist where it whips the spacecraft around Venus to guide the spacecraft's orbit tighter around the sun.

By early November, Parker is expected to fly as close as 15 million miles from the sun. By this time, it should already be within the corona.

Ultimately, Parker Solar Probe will make six more flybys around Venus and 24 total passes by the sun in seven years of it being in space. It will continue its journey steadily closer to the sun at 3.8 million miles, moving approximately 430,000 miles per hour. By then, it will have achieved the record for the fastest-moving object made by humanity.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Answering Gene Parker's Questions

For more than 60 years, experts failed to answer questions like how did corona became 300 times hotter than the sun, what triggers the supersonic solar wind, and what constitute solar energy that can travel more than half the speed of light.

"We're finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958," highlighted Nicola Fox, a project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Thermal Protection System

The Parker Solar Probe will be protected by a custom heat shield called the Thermal Protection System or TPS. It measures 8 feet in diameter and 4.5 inches thick.

As Parker travels through the temperature of several million degrees, the TPS will only be heated to about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. TPS is tested to withstand up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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