Nasa spacecraft heads to sun for closest look yet

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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 miles per hour.

After launching on the Delta-IV Heavy rocket - which sounds cool and probably is, yeah, fairly cool - at 03:31 local time in Florida (07:31 GMT) on Sunday, Nasa confirmed the flight trajectory "looked good" and that the probe had successfully separated from the rocket.

As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

"The key lies in its custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the Sun's intense light emission, but does allow the coronal material to "touch" the spacecraft", NASA said in a statement. It is the only spacecraft ever to be named after a living person; 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker.

The car-size probe is created to give scientists a better understanding of the solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.

A heat shield has been created to keep Parker's instruments at a tolerable 85 degrees Fahrenheit or 29 degrees Celsius.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel at some 430,000 miles per hours - the fastest ever human-made object, fast enough to travel from NY to Tokyo in one minute.

"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 (APL).

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But then, the launch of NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft in 1962 - becoming the first robotic spacecraft to make a successful planetary encounter - proved them wrong.

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"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, a project scientist and professor at the University of MI.

"It was just a matter of sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner 2 spacecraft showed that, by golly, there was a solar wind", Parker said earlier this week.

"Tested to withstand up to 1,650 degrees Celsius, the TPS can handle any heat the Sun can send its way, keeping nearly all instrumentation safe", said NASA.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The craft will be the fastest manmade object ever - flying at speeds of 430,000mph - and endure temperatures of more than 1,300C while looping around the Sun a planned 24 times.

The spacecraft will face heat and radiation "like no spacecraft before it", the agency said. "We're finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 - using a spacecraft that bears his name - and I can't wait to find out what discoveries we make".

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