Nasa’s daring probe to ‘touch sun’ lifts off

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches Nasa's Parker Solar Probe to the sun at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Nasa/Reuters

Nasa on Sunday blasted off its first-ever spaceship to explore the sun, the $1.5-billion Parker Solar Probe, on a strategic mission to protect the earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.

The launch of the car-sized probe aboard a massive Delta IV-Heavy rocket lit the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3.31 am (0731 GMT).

The unmanned spacecraft’s mission is to get closer than any human-made object ever to the centre of our solar system, plunging into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

The probe is guarded by an ultra-powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times experienced on earth. When it nears the sun, the probe will travel at some 6,92,000 kilometres per hour.

That will make it the fastest ever human-made object, speedy enough to travel from New York to Tokyo in one minute.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction," he added, describing the probe as one of Nasa's "strategically important" missions.

Nasa has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to "touch the sun."

In reality, it should come within 6.16 million kilometres of the sun's surface, close enough to study the curious phenomenon of the solar wind and the sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, which is 300 times hotter than its surface.

Scientists hope this close encounter will give them a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on earth by knocking out the power grid.

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

A worst-case scenario would cost up to two trillion dollars in the first year alone and take a decade for full recovery, experts say.

"The Parker Solar Probe will help us do a much better job of predicting when a disturbance in the solar wind could hit earth," said Justin Kasper, a project scientist and professor at the University of Michigan.

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.

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