The Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft ever designed to touch the atmosphere of the Sun, lifted off on its journey on Sunday, August 12, at 3:31 am. During its seven-year journey, Parker will explore our companion star in the greatest detail ever seen by the human race.
Astronomers have dreamed of launching a solar probe since the late 1950’s, years before NASA was founded. However, it is surprisingly difficult to launch a spacecraft to the Sun, due to the tremendous amount of energy required to obtain a stable orbit around our parent star.
“It was a very quiet launch countdown, it went off like clockwork. Parker Solar Probe has been one of our most challenging missions to date. I’m very proud of the team that worked to make this happen. We at NASA and the Launch Services Program are thrilled to be part of this mission,” said Omar Baez, NASA Launch Director.
Following the launch, a series of procedures took place, leaving the spacecraft soaring free, under its own power, on the way to the Sun.
This vehicle is due to become the fastest object ever created by mankind, reaching speeds of nearly 700,000 kilometers per hour (430,000 miles per hour), 250 times faster than a typical bullet. At its closest approach, the spacecraft will come within 6.4 million kilometers (four million miles) of the surface of the Sun. By contrast, the Earth revolves around our parent star at a distance of 150 million km (93 million miles).
On its journey, Parker will pass Venus seven times, utilizing that planet’s gravity to correct its trajectory in order to enter into a proper orbit around the Sun.
A heat shield, composed of 4.5 inches of carbon-carbon composite, is designed to protect the Parker Space Probe from temperatures reaching 1,370 degrees Celsius (2500 Fahrenheit).
One of the great mysteries of the Sun is why its atmosphere, the corona, reaches temperatures of millions of degrees, while the surface stays a relatively cool 5,600 Celsius (10,000 Fahrenheit). Astronomers hope Parker will be able to unravel the answer to this question.
On board the robotic observatory are the names of over a million people from around the world. The vehicle was named in honor of solar physicist Eugene Parker.