NASA spacecraft rockets toward the sun for our closest look yet

Parker Solar Probe

Scientists at the space agency were due to launch the probe yesterday - but it was called off due to "gaseous helium red pressure alarm".

The probe is the first NASA spacecraft with a living namesake.

"We've been inside the orbit of Mercury and done incredible things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can't answer these questions", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist, told CNN.

Mankind's first mission to "touch" the Sun may have panned out differently had it not been for Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, whose intervention made it possible for a research paper proposing the existence of solar wind to get published 60 years ago.

Nasa has launched a probe that will head closer to the sun than any other spacecraft before it.

Running 24 hours late because of a last-minute countdown glitch Saturday, the trek began at 3:31 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) Sunday when the 233-foot-tall Delta's three hydrogen-fueled Aerojet-Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines ignited with a rush of brilliant orange flame and quickly throttled up to 2.1 million pounds of thrust.

The Parker Solar Probe carries a lineup of instruments to study the Sun both remotely and in situ, or directly.

It is travelling on board the Delta-IV Heavy rocket, which will hurl the probe into the inner Solar System. Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral and said it was his first time seeing a rocket blast off in person.

"All I can say is "Wow, here we go, we're in for some learning over the next several years", he said when asked how he felt.

Of course, the spacecraft won't actually touch the sun - its temperature is a ludicrously toasty 5,500 degrees Celcius, and would instantly destroy any probe.

"We are going to be in an area that is so exciting, where solar wind - we believe - will be accelerating", said NASA planetary science division director Jim Green.

At those speeds, the spacecraft will reach the sun by November, and scientists hope to have early data back from the probe by the end of the year.

Zurbuchen also described the probe as one of NASA's most "strategically important" missions.

One of the reasons, scientists are sending the probe is the Sun's atmosphere and the weird property it exhibits, of being hotter than the surface of the sun itself.

The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun's radiation on Earth.

Yanping Guo, who designed the mission trajectory, said: "The launch energy to reach the Sun is 55 times that required to get to Mars, and two times that needed to get to Pluto". His 1958 paper was initially ridiculed but has come to be central to our understanding of the solar system and beyond.

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