NASA spacecraft blasts off toward sun for closest look yet

Parker Solar Probe launch

Passing within 3.8 million miles of the sun's visible surface - well within the shimmering halo of the outer atmosphere, or corona - the spacecraft's heat shield will endure 2,500-degree heating while whipping past the star at a record 430,000 mph, fast enough to fly from NY to Tokyo in less than a minute.

Greeting the launch - on the back of a mammoth Delta-IV Heavy rocket - NASA tweeted: "3-2-1... and we have liftoff of Parker #SolarProbe atop @ULAlaunch's #DeltaIV Heavy rocket".

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.

"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.

The spacecraft is the only NASA probe in history to be named after a living person - in this case, 91-year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.

The mission had been expected to launch on Saturday, but was delayed at the last minute due to a technical problem.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 12, 2018.

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

"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.

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 (690,000 kilometers per hour).

It is said the data gathered by the car-sized probe will "revolutionise" our understanding of the star, which has a huge impact on Earth.

"The spacecraft will provide unprecedented information about our sun, where changing conditions can spread out into the solar system to affect Earth and other worlds", explained Nasa in a statement.

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

"Chandra, as he was popularly known, is another astrophysicist with his name tagged to a space mission, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory", Nandi said.

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

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