NASA'S Parker Solar Probe Is Off To The Sun With Me On Board

Houston, we have a stowaway.

In an unprecedented quest to learn more about the star that makes life on Earth possible, NASA's Parker Solar Probe began its journey on Sunday to get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it.

Throughout its seven-year mission, the probe will swoop through the Sun's atmosphere 24 times and at its top speed of almost 700,000 kilometres per hour, set the record for the fastest-moving object ever made by humanity.

The landmark mission will allow scientists to make observations the likes of which have never been available to us, and as a space enthusiast and big-time appreciator of the Sun's life giving gig, I decided to tag along -- or at least, my name did.

Back in March, NASA invited members of the public to submit their names to be included on a memory card that is now mounted on the Parker Probe as it hurtles through space.

After the seven-and-a-half-week period of submissions, myself and 1,137,201 fellow Jetson wannabes secured our tickets to touch a star.

The "Hot Ticket" sent to myself, my dad and the other million-odd Earthlings who submitted their names.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close,” Nicola Fox, a project scientist for Parker Solar Probe, told NASA.

“It’s fitting that as the mission undertakes one of the most extreme journeys of exploration ever tackled by a human-made object, the spacecraft will also carry along the names of so many people who are cheering it on its way.”

The memory card was mounted on a plaque dedicated to Dr. Eugene Parker. Image: NASA
Scientists mount the memory card on the probe in preparation for launch. Image: NASA

The memory card also carries photos of the probe's namesake, heliophysicist Eugene Parker, and a copy of his groundbreaking 1958 scientific paper in which he first theorized the existence of solar wind -- the steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun.

Parker watched on from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as the spacecraft that bares his name -- the first NASA mission to be named for a living individual -- took flight.

"I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don't know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years," he said on NASA TV.

Dr. Eugene Parker is the first living scientist to see a NASA mission named after him take off. Image: NASA
An Unprecedented Mission

After a last-minute technical fault postponed the launch by a day, a United Launch Alliance heavy-lift Delta 4 rocket boosted the $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe into space late Sunday.

The size of a small car, weighing under a ton and travelling at speeds 15 times that of a speeding bullet, the probe will be protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield as it travels seven times closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft facing temperatures of over 1,300 degrees Celsius.

The Sun is 150 million kilometes from Earth and the probe will be within 4 percent of that distance at its closest -- roughly 6 million kilometres from the surface.

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is seen in this long exposure photograph as it launches NASA's Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun. Image: NASA/AAP

Researchers will vicariously explore the Sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, in an effort to better understand the complexities of the solar wind Parker theorized 60 years ago.

Among the curiosities is the apparent mismatch between the temperature of the Sun's visible surface, which measures about 5,500 degrees Celsius and the hundreds of times higher temperature of the corona, which reaches temperatures of about 5,500,000 degrees Celsius.

With its energy source at its core, why is the Sun's atmosphere so much hotter than its surface?

Scientists also hope to use data to determine what accelerates charged particles to enormous velocities to produce the solar wind which strams past Earth at speeds of more than 500km per second. This will help researchers better protect satellites, power grids on Earth and astronauts in orbit, all of which are impacted by solar storms and wind.

As a key component of the mission myself, I'll touch base again soon with updates from the Sun.