Early on Sunday morning, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket. With the aid of a next-generation heat shield, the probe will be the first to fly into the Sun’s corona.
“Today’s launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort,” said project manager Andy Driesman, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “Now, Parker Solar Probe is operating normally and on its way to begin a seven-year mission of extreme science.”
The Parker Solar Probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 07:31 UTC (03:31 EDT) on August 12, 2018 aboard a Delta IV in its Heavy configuration. The ULA heavy-lift rocket was selected for the mission as the probe’s planned trajectory required a high energy launch. The Delta IV Heavy utilised for the launch also featured a Star 48BV third stage. It was the first time the rocket had been launched in this specialized three-stage configuration.
Just over 42 minutes after liftoff, the Parker Solar Probe separated from the Star 48BV upper stage. In a series of Tweets following its separation, ULA confirmed that they had acquired the spacecraft’s signal and that the probe was operating nominally under its own power.
During its seven-year mission, the Parker Solar Probe will approach within 6.2 million kilometers (3.85 million miles) of the “surface” (photosphere) of the Sun. To achieve this, the probe will perform seven flybys of Venus over the seven years. Following each flyby, its elliptical orbit will gradually shrink bringing it closer to the sun. Scientific research will focus on the seven periods that the probe is closest to the sun.
In addition to completing a number of investigations that will include measuring electromagnetic levels and studying solar winds, the probe is equipped with an optical telescopes. The telescope will give researchers their first look at the Sun’s corona and inner heliosphere.
“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe,” said associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen. “We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”