Parker Solar Probe: Nasa launches mission to 'touch the Sun'

The mission costs £1.17billion

Liftoff took place from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the U.S. early today.

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.

"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.

Over the next seven years, there will be 24 close approaches to the sun.

"Go, baby, go!" project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University shouted at liftoff.

"The Sun's energy is always flowing past our world", Nicola Fox, mission project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement of the mission."And even though the solar wind is invisible, we can see it encircling the poles as the aurora, which are handsome ― but reveal the enormous amount of energy and particles that cascade into our atmosphere".

The probe is created to plunge into the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

The spacecraft is protected from melting during its close shave with the Sun by a heat shield just 4.5 inches (11.43 centimeters) thick.

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

These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people.

A worst-case scenario could cost up to two trillion dollars in the first year alone and take a decade to fully recover from, experts have warned.

Knowing more about the solar wind and space storms will also help protect future deep space explorers as they journey toward the Moon or Mars.

The Parker Solar Probe during final pre-launch processing, its white heat shield visible at the top.

"We are ready. We have the flawless payload".

"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. "We have not been able to answer these questions".

One of those watching the historic moment was Dr Eugene Parker, the now 91-year-old scientist who first suggested the possibility of solar winds in 1958 and who the craft is named after. It could be due to interactions between electrically charged particles and the sun's powerful magnetic field, or it could be the result of countless "nanoflares" governed by another mechanism.

When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 430,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest human-made object.

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