Parker Solar Probe: Nasa launches mission to 'touch the Sun'

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Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey towards the Moon or Mars.

And Nasa's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, said: "I'm in awe". But due to a technical snag, the launch date was delayed and scheduled on Sunday, Aug. 12, at 3:31 a.m. EDT (0731 GMT) during a window that will remain open for 65 minutes.

Liftoff of the Dollars 1.5 billion mission took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the U.S. at 3:31 am EDT (1:01 pm Indian Standard Time). But the probe's heat shield will still get hotter than lava while its instruments study the hellish environment in unprecedented detail.

Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named.

Dr Nicky Fox, the British-born project scientist who is affiliated to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory said: "I realise that might not sound that close, but imagine the sun and the Earth were a metre apart".

It aims to get closer than any human-made object in history to the centre of our solar system. This will allow SWEAP to sweep up a sample of the atmosphere of the sun, our star, for the first time at these distances. That's nearly 10 times closer than Mercury gets, and seven times closer than any previous probe. These events can affect satellites and astronauts as well as the Earth - including power grids and radiation exposure on airline flights, NASA said.

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But it's only been in the past few years that scientists and engineers could put together a space mission capable of going close enough to get the data to back up the theory. Along the way, the spacecraft will gather data to try and solve some of the sun's great mysteries.

The solar wind is a stream of charged particles and magnetic fields that flow continuously from the Sun. "If the Parker Solar Probe can reach below the Alfvén point, then we can say the spacecraft has entered the solar atmosphere and touched the Sun". And finally, what accelerates solar energetic particles, which can reach speeds up to more than half the speed of light as they rocket away from the Sun? So Parker will be the first space ship that close to the solar surface.

"Now I have to turn from really biting my nails to thinking about the interesting things [to come] that I don't know yet, which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five, six, or seven years", he said.

Parker published research predicting the existence of solar wind in 1958, when he was a young professor at the University of Chicago's Enrico Fermi institute.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is one of the most powerful rockets in the world, designed and built by the United Launch Alliance.

What does Parker Solar Probe mean for humanity? On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.