LIFTOFF! NASA probe launches into space to study the sun

$1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe mission launches from Florida


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Before dawn Sunday, NASA launched 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 on its second attempt, the Parker Solar Probe — NASA’s first mission named for a living person — rumbled from the Space Coast at 3:31 a.m. Sunday atop one of the most powerful American rockets, United Launch Alliance’s 233-foot Delta IV Heavy.

The probe is named for Eugene Parker, 91, a University of Chicago physicist who in 1958 predicted the existence of the solar wind, a constant flow of magnetized solar particles that streams out into the farthest reaches of the solar system.

“All I have to say is, wow, here we go,” Parker said, after the launch he watched from Kennedy Space Center. “We’re in for some learning over the next several years.”

Over seven years, the Parker probe will perform 24 orbits passing through the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, investigating why it is so much hotter than the sun's surface and what accelerates the solar wind to supersonic speeds.

A trio of first-stage boosters fired hydrogen-fueled engines to light up the night sky above Launch Complex 37, unleashing 2.1 million pounds of thrust to begin the probe’s seven-year mission.

[PHOTOS: LIFTOFF! NASA probe launches into space to study the sun]

A second rocket stage fired and then an extra third stage provided the final kick needed to hurtle the relatively small, 1,400-pound spacecraft out of Earth’s orbit and toward the sun, releasing it 43 minutes after liftoff.

"It went off like clockwork," said Omar Baez, the mission's NASA launch manager, said of Sunday's countdown and launch. "The energy of that (launch) vehicle, the immense size, and when you realize how tiny the Parker Solar Probe satellite is, and you have this big vehicle around it, it’s just mind boggling."

In six weeks, the probe will use the first of seven flybys of Venus to perform the equivalent of a handbrake turn to fine-tune its trajectory. That will set up the first of 24 petal-shaped orbits around Earth's nearest star within a few months.

The first pass 15 million miles from the sun’s surface will already be the closest by any spacecraft, a distance that will close to within 3.8 million miles by the closest approaches through the sun’s super-heated outer atmosphere, or corona.

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the probe marks a first in NASA history.

“While we have many missions dedicated to studying the sun from afar, we have never, ever had a mission to get this up close and personal," Zurbuchen said.

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