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NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Begins Journey to the Sun

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is on its way for a rendezvous with the Sun. A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, carrying the spacecraft, lifted off at 3:31 a.m. EDT, from Space Launch Complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, its engines blazing golden in the clear night sky during ascent.

About four minutes into flight, a series of key events occurred. The Delta IV port and starboard booster engines shut down and separated, the main core booster engine cut off and then separated from the second stage. After second stage engine ignition, the payload fairing was jettisoned. After second stage main engine cutoff and separation, the Parker Solar Probe separated from the third stage, provided by Northrup Grumman. Shortly afterward, mission managers confirmed that the spacecraft’s solar arrays successfully deployed and the spacecraft was operating on its own power.

During its mission to “touch” the Sun, Parker Solar Probe will use gravity assists from Venus seven times over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. It will fly directly through the Sun’s atmosphere, as close as 3.8 million miles from its surface, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it. The spacecraft will hurtle around the Sun at speeds up to 430,000 miles per hour. That’s 15 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Parker Solar Probe will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun’s corona. Facing brutal heat and radiation, the spacecraft will fly close enough to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and fly through the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles. Parker Solar Probe and its instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick, carbon-carbon composite heat shield. The shield’s front surface will be able to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft up to 2,500 degree Fahrenheit. While the inside, or back surface of the shield will withstand temperatures up to 650 degrees Fahrenheit.

For more than 60 years, scientist have wondered how energy and heat move through the solar corona and what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. Now, with the help of cutting-edge thermal technology that can protect the mission on its dangerous journey, the spacecraft’s four instrument suites will study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

In 2017, the mission was renamed for Eugene Parker, the S Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. In the 1950s, Parker, a solar astrophysicist, proposed a number of concepts about how stars–including our Sun–give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields, and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorized an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is–contrary to what was expected by physics laws–hotter than the surface of the Sun itself. This is the first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual.

Parker Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program to explore aspects of the Sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society. The Living With a Star flight program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, manages the mission for NASA. APL designed and built the spacecraft and also will operate it.

Parker Solar Probe is the fourth mission for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) this year. LSP is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis and launch management for each mission.

This concludes today’s coverage of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe countdown, launch and ascent into space for its mission to explore the Sun.