NASA launches probe to go deep into Sun's scorching atmosphere

The mission costs £1.17billion

Running a day late, a United Launch Alliance heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket thundered away from Cape Canaveral early Sunday, boosting NASA's $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe into space on a daring seven-year mission to "touch the sun" with repeated trips through the star's blazing outer atmosphere.

Originally slated to fly in the small hours of Saturday morning, the Parker Solar Probe blasted off Sunday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 03:31 am EDT / 00:31 PT / 8.31 UMT.

The probe will zip past Venus in six weeks and make a first rendezvous with the Sun a further six weeks after that.

At a press conference last week, Parker said of his namesake mission: "I expect to find some surprises".

Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, said: 'The sun is full of mysteries. Yet the inside of the spacecraft should stay at just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The craft is equipped with a first of it's kind heat shield, and an internal water cooling system that will protect the instruments from the extreme conditions.

"The outer sun-facing side of the shield will reach 2,500 Fahrenheit at closest approach to the sun".

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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.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid.

It is due tol fly past Venus in October, which will set up the first solar encounter in November.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

"All I can say is "Wow, here we go, we're in for some learning over the next several years", he said when asked how he felt.

The Parker probe will start shattering records this fall.

He added: "It's a whole new phase and it's gonna be fascinating throughout.and we're just waiting for the data now so the experts can get busy because there's a lot of data will be coming in".

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"To me, it's still mind-blowing, " she said.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions.

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

The spacecraft's heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation on Earth. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes each way, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

"So we're already in a region of very, very interesting coronal area", Fox said. "It's incredible to be standing here today".

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