‘Touch the sun’

NASA spacecraft hurtles toward our star

This image made available by NASA shows an artist's rendering of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. It's designed to take solar punishment like never before, thanks to its revolutionary heat shield that’s capable of withstanding 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,370 degrees Celsius). (Steve Gribben/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Embarking on a mission that scientists have been dreaming of since the Sputnik era, a NASA spacecraft hurtled toward the sun on a quest to unlock some of its mysteries by getting closer than any object sent before.

If all goes well, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, in November. In the years ahead, it will gradually get within 3.8 million miles of the surface, its instruments protected from the extreme heat and radiation by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wizardry.

Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to our star during the seven-year, $1.5 billion journey.

“Wow, here we go. We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.

It was Parker who accurately theorized 60 years ago the existence of solar wind — the supersonic stream of charged particles blasting off the sun and coursing through space, sometimes wreaking havoc on electrical systems on Earth.

In this photo provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person.

As Parker and thousands of others watched, a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the probe aloft, thundering into the clear, star-studded sky on three pillars of fire that lit up the middle-of-the-night darkness.

NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the Parker probe — the size of a small car and well under a ton — racing toward the sun, 93 million miles from Earth.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, a retired University of Chicago professor. He said it was like looking at photos of the Taj Mahal for years and then beholding the real thing in India.

“I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don’t know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years,” Parker said on NASA TV.

This July 6, 2018 photo made available by NASA shows the Parker Solar Probe in a clean room at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., after the installation of its heat shield. NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be the first spacecraft to "touch" the sun, hurtling through the sizzling solar atmosphere and coming within just 3.8 million miles (6 million kilometers) of the surface. (Ed Whitman/Johns Hopkins APL/NASA via AP)

Among the mysteries scientists hope to solve: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface, which is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit? And why is the sun’s atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker theorized in 1958?

“The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University. “We’ve looked at it. We’ve studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there.”

A better understanding of the sun’s life-giving and sometimes violent nature could also enable earthlings to better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, along with the power grids so vital to today’s technology-dependent society, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief.

Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles, easily beating the current record of 27 million miles set by NASA’s Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

By the time Parker gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record 430,000 mph. Nothing from planet Earth has ever gone that fast.

In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018 photo, astrophysicist Eugene Parker sits between Johns Hopkins University project scientist Nicola Fox, left, and NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen, during a news conference about the Parker Solar Probe at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It's the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after someone who's still alive. (AP Photo/Marcia Dunn)

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission’s derring-do.

“To me, it’s still mind-blowing,” she said. “Even I still go, ‘Really? We’re doing that?'”

The 8-foot heat shield will serve as an umbrella that will shade the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, with on-board sensors adjusting the protective cover as necessary so that nothing gets fried.

A mission to get up close and personal with our star has been on NASA’s books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds and durable enough to withstand the punishing environment.

“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” Fox said.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.