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NASA Launches Probe To ‘Touch Sun’

We know what you’re thinking: Won’t it just burn up?

Yes, yes it will — eventually.

NASA on Sunday launched a $1.5 billion spacecraft on a historic mission to fly to the sun to study solar storms and other fascinating phenomena about the star that gives life to planet Earth.

The spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3:31 a.m.

The unmanned (duh) spacecraft will fly closer than any craft to the sun.

The probe, enshrouded in a 4.5-inch heat shield that can withstand radiation 500 times that on Earth, will actually begin its seven-year mission in an orbit some 3.83 million miles from the sun’s surface (the sun is about 93,000,000 miles from Earth). There, the car-sized probe will study the phenomenon called “solar wind,” and also geomagnetic storms that could wreak havoc on electronics and power grids on Earth, as it makes 24 close passes collecting data.

When the mission is complete, the probe will plunge into the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, and send back as much data as it can before it burns up.

“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-breaking 430,000 mph,” the Associated Press reports.

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 16 minutes, 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.

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