NASA has launched its US$1.5-billion Parker Solar Probe, a mission that will skim through the Sun’s upper atmosphere and ‘taste’ the source of the solar wind.
The spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 12 August, on a trajectory that will take it past Venus in October, for a gravitational nudge to its orbit, and then past the Sun in November.
Over the next seven years, it will fly close to the Sun 24 times, eventually getting within 6.2 million kilometres of its surface. That will put the Parker Solar Probe within the solar corona, where it will directly sample the magnetic, and other, energies that generate the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind, which drives space weather. It will be by far the closest that any spacecraft has got to the Sun.
The mission is named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who proposed the existence of the solar wind, and who, now aged 91, attended the satellite’s launch. It is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person.