Early sunrise: Mission to 'touch' the sun blasts off from Florida

- This is one hot flight: The first NASA mission to ‘touch’ our sun is underway after a dramatic early morning launch.  The Parker Solar Probe is now racing through space on a path that will eventually bring it within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface.

A triple-core Delta IV Heavy rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral just after 3:30 a.m. Sunday, momentarily turning night into day in a spectacle visible for miles along the Florida coast.

Roughly the size of a small car, PSP will get nearly seven times closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft. To snuggle up to the sun, it will fly past Venus seven times over seven years. Each flyby will provide an orbit-shaping gravity boost, drawing it ever closer to the sun and straight into the corona -- the sun's outermost atmosphere.

That’s where it will encounter temperatures of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.  But an 8-foot-wide heat shield out front – only 4.5 inches thick – should keep the probe’s electronics safe at room temperature.

It took one of the most powerful rockets in the world to get the mission moving – not because the probe is large or heavy, but because of the speed required to cruise through the solar system.  

“The launch energy to reach the Sun is 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto,” said Yanping Guo from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who designed the mission trajectory. 

And that’s just the beginning.  After the gravity boosts, PSP will eventually hit 430,000 mph in the corona at its closest approach – the equivalent of going from Chicago to Beijing in under a minute.

Scientists expect the $1.5-billion mission to shed light not only on our own dynamic sun, but the billions of other yellow dwarf stars – and other types of stars – out there in the Milky Way and beyond. While granting us life, the sun also has the power to disrupt spacecraft in orbit, as well as communications and electronics on Earth.

"This is where we live," said NASA solar astrophysicist Alex Young. "We have to understand and characterize this place that we're traveling through."

The probe is NASA’s first to be named after a living person.  Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, predicted the existence of solar wind 60 years ago. He was at Cape Canaveral for the launch – his first – which he called “impressive.”

“Just waiting for the data now,” he said.  “All I can say is wow, here we go. We’re in for some learning here over the next several years.”

PARKER SOLAR PROBE FAST FACTS:

PSP is carrying four instrument suites designed to study the sun’s magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind.

Parker Solar Probe’s solar arrays can produce 388 watts of power, depending on configuration.  That’s about enough to run a kitchen blender.

At closest approach, PSP will hurtle around the sun at approximately 430,000 mph. That's fast enough to get from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in one second.

At closest approach to the sun, the front of PSP’s solar shield faces temperatures approaching 2,500 degrees F. The spacecraft's payload will be near room temperature.

On the final three orbits, PSP flies to within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface — more than seven times closer than the current record-holder for a close solar pass, the Helios 2 spacecraft, which came within 27 million miles in 1976, and about a tenth as close as Mercury, which is, on average, about 36 million miles from the Sun.

Source: NASA

Associated Press reporter Marcia Dunn contributed to this report.

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