CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA plans to try again before dawn Sunday to launch a $1.5 billion mission from Cape Canaveral that aims to send a science probe closer to the sun than any spacecraft before.
News 6 Partner Florida Today reports that the first launch attempt early Saturday scrubbed with less than two minutes to go before liftoff of the Parker Solar Probe on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.
"Hold, hold, hold!" an engineer called out shortly before the planned 4:28 a.m. blastoff from Launch Complex 37, after the rocket's gaseous helium system tripped an automatic alarm. Saturday's window closed at 4:38 a.m.
"The team is evaluating that and looking at it," Mic Woltman, a flight test engineer with NASA's Launch Services Program, told NASA TV. "Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time this evening to go troubleshoot that and try again for a launch."
Sunday's liftoff will be targeted for 3:31 a.m., the opening of another 65-minute window, assuming the helium issue is resolved swiftly.
There's a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather, according to the Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron.
Saturday's bumpy countdown had already been delayed twice before the scrub occurred.
The 65-minute window opened at 3:33 a.m., but the launch time was pushed back 20 minutes after minor issues with ground equipment before a mobile service tower could be rolled back from the rocket, and then concerns about sensor readings that delayed the start of fueling.
As a potential 3:53 a.m. liftoff neared, the launch team was unable to pick up the countdown from a hold at T minus 4 minutes due to an unspecified technical problem.
The issue was cleared and the launch time reset for 4:28 a.m., ultimately to no avail.
The Parker Solar Probe mission must launch by Aug. 23 or else face a delay until next May.
[BEST SPOTS TO WATCH: View our interactive map of the best Space Coast launch viewing spots.]
The solar spacecraft will collect data with a suite of instruments designed to help our understanding of solar winds, their impacts on Earth as well as survey the outer corona, where solar wind is produced.
It’s important to learn as much as possible about the sun and how it produces space weather because Earth is inside the atmosphere of the sun. The data is expected to help space weather prediction which can cause problems here on Earth and with satellites.
“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface,” said mission scientist Nicola Fox, with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
If you happen to be outside –in the dark-- waiting for liftoff, try to spot a few meteors. The Perseid Meteor shower doesn’t peak until after 10 p.m. on Saturday, but the predawn hours are best for spotting meteors.
Post-launch, the Parker Solar Probe will be on unusual trajectory because it’s headed toward the sun, getting as close as 3.83 million miles from its surface. For perspective, Earth is about 93 million miles from the center of our solar system. The closest planet to the Sun, Mercury, is still 29 million miles away.
Before arriving at the sun, Parker will make seven Venus flybys in seven years, using the planet’s gravity to get closer to the sun with each flyby. It’s expected to make the first Venus pass at the end of September.
When the spacecraft is closest to the sun in its orbit, this is known as perihelion. The spacecraft will reach perihelion 24 times during its mission.
The spacecraft will be moving at 43,000 mph when it nears the sun’s surface. That’s about 125 miles per second.
Parker's final trip around the sun will be in 2025.
Spacecraft built to withstand extreme temperatures
To protect the suite of science instruments designed to unlock answers about the solar corona and solar wind, Parker is a compact, but strong spacecraft.
Guarding the spacecraft and its four instruments against temperatures, reaching 2,500 degrees, is a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite shield.
Parker’s solar panels are also able to retract and extend as it flies toward or away from the sun, to keep the science suite protected.
Who is Parker?
The Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft named after a living person, Eugene Parker, a University of Chicago astronomy and astrophysics professor emeritus whose 1958 research changed what we know about the sun. Parker’s theory of solar wind, created by charged particles from the sun, was later proven with data from NASA’s Mariner 2 mission to Venus.
The solar spacecraft mission exists because of his work in heliophysics, the study of the sun.
After NASA announced the spacecraft would be named after him, Park said he is looking forward to seeing the science form the mission going to a region of space never before explored.
“I’m sure that there will be some surprises,” Parker said. “There always are.”
ClickOrlando.com will stream the Sunday Delta IV launch live starting at 3:30 a.m. Check back for updates.