NASA postpones launch of first solar probe until Sunday

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

The probe is set to use seven Venus flybys over almost seven years to steadily reduce its orbit around the Sun, using instruments created to image the solar wind and study electric and magnetic fields, coronal plasma and energetic particles.

The probe is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

At Parker Solar Probe's closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach almost 1,371 degrees Celsius, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 29.4 degrees Celsius.

NASA stated: "Parker Solar Probe will provide unprecedented information about our sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system to affect Earth and other worlds".

The mission is expected to shatter a number of records: It will approach seven times closer to the sun than any other manmade object ever has, and it will be Nasa's fastest spacecraft, reaching top speeds of over 400,000 miles per hour (643737 kmh - fast enough, as Nasa's website says, to get from Washington, DC, to Philadelphia in less than one second). The first Venus flyby is in October, followed by the first dip into the sun's corona in November. It will make its very closest approach in 2025, when it will get within 3.8 million miles of the sun's surface. By way of comparison, the average distance from the Sun for Earth is 93 million miles (150 million km).

The records will start falling as soon as Parker takes its first run past the sun. "Each time we fly by we get closer and closer to the Sun", Driesman added.

"We'll also be the fastest human-made object ever, travelling around the Sun at speeds of up to 690,000km/h (430,000mph) - NY to Tokyo in under a minute!" she told BBC News.

Our yellow dwarf star is, in many ways, a mystery.

The probe's main goal is to unveil the secrets of the corona, the unusual atmosphere around Sun.

"The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit Earth", said Justin Kasper, one of the project scientists and a professor at the University of MI. Many were skeptical and told him to read up on it first "so you don't make these killer mistakes", he recalls.

Thousands of spectators gathered in the middle of the night to witness the launch, including the University of Chicago astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named. "But of course, I enjoy it".

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