NASA’s solar probe mission: Last minute glitch delays take-off, may fly tomorrow
NASA has postponed until Sunday the launch of its $1.5 billion unmanned Parker Solar Probe, to allow engineers more time to investigate a red flag that was raised in the last moment before lift-off.
The problem had to do with the gaseous helium pressure alarm on the spacecraft, officials said early Saturday. The next launch window opens at 3:31 (0731 GMT) on Sunday.
NASA’s car-sized, $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe was scheduled to launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida during a 65-minute launch window that opened at 3:33 am (0733 GMT).
By coming closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history, the unmanned probe’s main goal is to unveil the secrets of the corona, the unusual atmosphere around the Sun.
“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.
“Where we see huge magnetic fields that are passing by us, as coronal mass ejections make their way out into the solar system.”
Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid.
“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.
The probe is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that is just 11.43 centimetres thick.
The shield should enable the spacecraft to survive its close shave with the fiery star, coming within 6.16 million kilometres of the Sun’s surface. The heat shield is built to withstand radiation equivalent to up to about 500 times the Sun’s radiation on Earth.
Even in a region where temperatures can reach more than a million degrees Fahrenheit, the sunlight is expected to heat the shield to just around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,371 degrees Celsius).