Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Last-minute technical problem delays NASA's flight to sun

Illustrations of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft leaving Earth. Pic JHU  APL Image An illustration of the probe leaving Earth. Pic NASA
Cary Marshall | 12 August, 2018, 11:09

The car-sized Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to blast off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The Parker probe's final three orbits - in 2024 and 2025 - will be the closest. The webcast will begin at 3 a.m. EDT (0700 GMT).

The Parker Solar Probe will fly to the sun to collect data from inside the solar atmosphere.

The car-sized probe is created to give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid. The US$1.5 billion mission is already a week late because of rocket issues. Advanced carbon composite shielding will keep its delicate instruments cool. As one scientist notes, this is a shield Captain America would envy.

The probe is set to use seven Venus flybys over almost seven years to steadily reduce its orbit around the Sun, using instruments created to image the solar wind and study electric and magnetic fields, coronal plasma and energetic particles.

But getting so close to the Sun requires slowing down - for which Parker will use the gravity of our neighbor planet, Venus. The first Venus flyby is in October, followed by the first dip into the sun's corona in November.

The shield should enable the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the center of our solar system, coming within 3.83 million miles (6.16 million kilometers) of the Sun's surface. That may not seem close, but remember, we earthlings are 93 million miles away, and things can get downright broiling even at this distance.

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It will get more than seven times closer than the current record holder for a close solar pass, a record set by the Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

Our yellow dwarf star is, in many ways, a mystery.

Scientists also hope the probe can help them to answer why the corona, the outermost layer of the sun's atmosphere, is 300 times hotter than its surface.

Eugene Parker predicted the existence of solar wind 60 years ago. Many were skeptical and told him to read up on it first "so you don't make these killer mistakes", he recalls.

But then, the launch of NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong.

Parker is now 91 years old and at Cape Canaveral with his family to witness his first launch - a Delta IV Heavy rocket with the spacecraft bearing his name.

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