What is NASA’s Parker Solar Probe?

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A NASA spacecraft rocketed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

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.

The probe will dip inside this tenuous atmosphere, sampling conditions, and getting to just 6.16 million km (3.83 million miles) from the Sun's broiling "surface".

The first launch attempt on Saturday was postponed at the last minute due to technical problem related to a helium gas sensor on the rocket.

The Solar Probe Cup, dubbed "the bravest little instrument", is a sensor that will extend beyond the heat shield to "scoop up samples" of the Sun's atmosphere, according to Professor Justin Kasper of the University of MI.

The Parker Solar Probe carries a lineup of instruments to study the Sun both remotely and in situ, or directly.

"Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun", explains Dr Fox. The spacecraft is named after 91-year old solar physicist Eugene Parker, 91, who was the first scientist to describe solar wind in 1958.

NASA hopes the probe will help determine which parts of the sun are providing the energy source for solar winds and solar particles, and how they accelerate to such high speeds.

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"Until you actually go there and touch the sun, you really can't answer these questions", said Project Scientist Nicola Fox. 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.

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn't about to let it take off without him.

These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people.

"This space weather has direct influence, not always positive, on our technology in space, our spacecraft, it disrupts our communications, it creates a hazardous environment for astronauts and in the most extreme cases can actually affect our power grids here on the Earth", said Alex Young, associate director of NASA's heliophysics program.

More knowledge of solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars. The first science data should return sometime in December.

"All I have to say is wow, here we go". As you might guess, NASA is relying on automation to make this work.

Its maximum velocity around the sun will reach 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object to orbit a celestial body.

It is said the data gathered by the car-sized probe will "revolutionise" our understanding of the star, which has a huge impact on Earth.

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