NASA launches Parker Solar Probe to the Sun

Christopher Davidson
August 19, 2018

The Parker Solar Probe, which launched early Sunday morning (Aug. 12) from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, is notching flight milestones according to plan, NASA officials said today (Aug. 17).

By 5:33 a.m., the mission's operations manager reported that the spacecraft successfully separated and the probe was launched into space. This mission needs to be progressively done so the spacecraft is not taken out of orbit.

That Venus flyby will occur on October 3, paving the way for the Parker Solar Probe's first close encounter with the sun on November 5.

On August 13, the high-gain antenna, which Parker Solar Probe uses to communicate high-rate science data to Earth, was released from locks which held it stable during launch.

That moment can't come soon enough for the mission's namesake, pioneering astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted the existence of the solar wind back in 1958.

"Tested to withstand up to 1,650 degrees Celsius, the TPS can handle any heat the Sun can send its way, keeping nearly all instrumentation safe", said NASA. Testing will last approximately four weeks.

The probe will fly toward Venus over the next two months.

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How it avoids melting when it gets within 4 million miles from the sun - as opposed to the 93 million miles we are from the Sun here on Earth - is a mystery to most of us. By this time, it should already be within the corona.

While the Parker Solar Probe will travel through a space with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of the heat shield that faces the Sun will only get heated to about 1,400 degree Celsius. It will continue its journey steadily closer to the sun at 3.8 million miles, moving approximately 430,000 miles per hour.

Both of those figures will shatter spaceflight records: No other spacecraft has ever gotten closer to the sun than 27 million miles (43 million km) or traveled faster than 165,000 mph (265,000 km/h).

"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". That's about 1/8 the distance between Mercury and the Sun, and within the solar corona, the Sun's tenuous outer atmosphere.

According to the U.S. space agency, Parker Solar Probe has been created to withstand the extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations for the mission.

The Parker Solar Probe will be protected by a custom heat shield called the Thermal Protection System or TPS. But temperatures within the corona can reach into the millions of degrees Celsius - a huge spike from the 6,000 degrees Celsius found at the Sun's surface. TPS is tested to withstand up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

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