NASA embarks on "dangerous" mission to the Sun

Parker Solar Probe launch

The Parker solar probe, a robotic spacecraft the size of a small auto, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday, embarking on a seven-year mission which will see it flying into the sun's corona - the outermost part of its atmosphere - within 3.8m miles (6.1 m km) of its surface.

"The launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft was scrubbed today due to a violation of a launch limit, resulting in a hold", Nasa, said in a statement.

It is set to fly into the Sun's corona within 3.8 million miles (6.1 million km) of the solar surface, seven times closer than any other spacecraft.

The spacecraft is protected from melting during its close shave with the Sun by a heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

"Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explains Dr Fox.

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.

"The sun is full of mysteries", said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. That's nearly 10 times closer than Mercury gets, and seven times closer than any previous probe. The spacecraft will also be prepared for the first of seven planned Venus flybys scheduled for October 2.

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With this first-of-its-kind stellar mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5 billion years old.

"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.

NASA chief of the science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said Parker is an "incredible hero of our scientific community".

NASA project manager Andy Driesman said: "We will fly by Venus seven times throughout the mission". "Parker Solar Probe will enable groundbreaking research, making space a safer to be".

From Earth, it is 93 million miles to the sun (150 million kilometres), and the Parker probe will be within four percent of that distance.

"We'll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690,000km/h (430,000mph) - NY to Tokyo in under a minute". It's going to make 24 orbits of the sun and will break speed records by travelling at 430,000 miles per hour.

"We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams", Fox said. His 1958 paper was initially ridiculed but has come to be central to our understanding of the solar system and beyond. As you might guess, NASA is relying on automation to make this work.

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