Humanity took one big step closer to the sun on Sunday.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe zoomed towards the sun’s atmosphere at 3:31 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a groundbreaking quest to get closer to our star than ever before.
“All I can say is, ‘Wow, here we go,’” said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named. “We’re in for some learning over the next several years.”
As soon as this November, the probe will fly straight through the sun’s outer atmosphere, called the Corona, and will eventually get within 3.8 million miles in the years ahead.
Altogether, it will make 24 close approaches to the sun during the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.
A mission to get up close and personal with the star has been on NASA’s books since 1958 — but the technology necessary to make a small, compact spacecraft, light enough to travel at incredible speeds while surviving the extreme change in temperature, heat and radiation didn’t exist yet.
The spacecraft will stay cool thanks to a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech elements, allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way they’ve never been able to before.
“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up to our dreams,” said project scientist Nicola Fox of John Hopkins University. “It’s incredible to be standing here today.”
The probe will set earth-shattering records, getting seven times closer to the sun than ever before and eventually travelling at a speed of 430,000 mph. Nothing from Planet Earth has ever gone that fast.
Saturday’s planned departure date was foiled by last-minute technical problems but NASA pointed out that there was no better day for the launch of a mission to “touch the sun” than Sunday.
A mighty, 23-storey Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Parker probe, which is the size of a small car and weighs well under a ton into the clear sky, as its namesake looked on.