NASA postpones launch of probe to study sun at close range

US space agency NASA postponed the launch of the Parker Solar Probe on Saturday – the start of a years-long mission to study the sun up close for the first time ever.

Technical issues caused the launch to be interrupted twice, which eventually led to the launch window being missed.

NASA will attempt a new launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida using a Delta IV Heavy, the world’s second-most powerful rocket currently in use, on Sunday, NASA said.

The probe – which will be the fastest spacecraft ever once it reaches top speed – will gather data on the inner workings of the sun on its flybys, which will happen in 2023.

When the spacecraft reaches top speed, it will fly 700,000 kilometres per hour – fast enough to travel from London to Berlin in about three seconds.

“Parker Solar Probe will travel through the sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions, and ultimately providing humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star,” the US space agency said in a statement.

The spacecraft will first fly around Earth’s neighbouring planet Venus and use that planet’s gravity to build up speed and fly towards the sun.

At its closest flyby, the probe will be just 6.13 million kilometres from the sun.

The distance between the sun and Earth is almost 150-million kilometres.

It will pass through the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, allowing the probe to gather new data on solar winds and the inner workings of the mega star.

“The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind, as well as solar energetic particles,” NASA said.

“Parker Solar Probe will carry four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and image the solar wind,” it added.

Flying that close to the sun requires unique equipment that can withstand immense heat and radiation.

“To perform these unprecedented investigations, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick [11.43cm] carbon-composite shield, which will need to withstand temperatures outside the spacecraft that reach nearly [1,377 degrees Celsius],” NASA said

During its nearly seven-year mission, the spacecraft will send data back to Earth for scientists at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, which manages the mission for NASA.

The probe is named after solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who developed the theory of Parker spirals, a spiral-shaped magnetic field generated by the sun.

It is the first time in NASA’s history the space agency has named a spacecraft after a person that is still alive at the time of launch.

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