An artist’s impression of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the sun. Picture: EPA-EFE
An artist’s impression of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the sun. Picture: EPA-EFE
The Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off.
The Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off.
A NASA spacecraft zoomed towards the sun on Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

As soon as this spring, 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.

It eventually will get within 6millionkilometres of the surface in the years ahead, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than on Sunday, as Nasa noted.

“All I can say is ‘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.

Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other hi-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October.

That will set up the first solar encounter in November.

For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family.

He proposed the existence of solar wind - a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun - 60 years ago.

It was the first time Nasa named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn’t about to let it take off without him.

Saturday morning’s launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble.

But Sunday gave way to success.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers as it climbed through a clear, star-studded sky.

Nasa needed the mighty 23-storey rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe - the size of a small car and well under a ton - racing towards the sun.

From Earth, it is 150 million kilometres to the sun and the Parker probe will be within 4% of that distance at its closest. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.

“Go, baby, go!” project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University shouted at lift-off.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

He was impressed, saying it was like looking at the Taj Mahal for years in photos 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.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s science mission chief, was thrilled not only with the launch, but Parker’s presence.

“I’m in awe,” Zurbuchen said.

“What a milestone. Also what’s so cool is hanging out with Parker during all this and seeing his emotion, too.”

Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this spring. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 25millionkilometres, easily beating the record of 43millionkilometres set by Nasa’s Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976.

Zurbuchen expects the data from even this early stage to yield top science papers.

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 travelling at a record-breaking 690000km/* .

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

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

“To me, it’s still mind-blowing,” she said.

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe and so this is one of Nasa’s big-time strategic missions.

By better understanding the sun’s life-giving and sometimes violent nature, earthlings could better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit and power grids on the ground, he noted. In today’s tech-dependent society, everyone stands to benefit.

With this first-of-its-kind stellar mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star about 4.5billionyearsold.

Among the puzzles: why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun’s atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

“The only way we can find out is to finally go up and touch the sun,” Fox said. “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.”

The spacecraft’s heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures.

Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times.

If there’s any tilting, the spacecraft will correct itself so nothing gets fried. With a communication lag time of 16minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun.

The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, will be too far away to help.

A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on Nasa’s books since 1958.

The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun’s punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

“We’ve had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams,” Fox said. “It’s incredible to be standing here today.”

More than a million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last year by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.

“I’ll bet you 10 bucks it works,” Parker said. - AP