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NASA Parker Solar Probe launches on historic mission to high-five the sun

The probe will race closer to the sun than we've ever been before to learn more about the solar flares that disrupt our technology.

Bill Ingalls/NASA

NASA has launched a spacecraft destined to become the fastest man-made object ever as it gets closer to the sun than we've been before. 

Originally slated to fly in the small hours of Saturday morning, the Parker Solar Probe blasted off Sunday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 03:31 a.m. EDT / 00:31 PT / 8.31 UMT. The probe was borne into the heavens atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Within three minutes of taking off, the rocket was 33 miles up, traveling at 4,500 miles per hour and weighing half of what it did at launch, burning fuel at a rate of 5,000 pounds per second.

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The probe's destination is the sun's corona, which it will fly through over two dozen times, eventually coming within less than 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of our star's surface. That's around 4 percent of the distance between the Earth and the sun. Along the way, the spacecraft will gather data to try to solve some of the sun's great mysteries. Scientists aim to learn more about the mechanisms that power the solar wind of charged particles the sun sends into the solar system, creating auroras on Earth and sometimes screwing with our tech. 

Instruments on board may also help to explain why the corona is hotter than the sun's surface by several orders of magnitude. Perhaps most important for us humans, the science undertaken with the help of the Parker Solar Probe will likely improve our ability to forecast space weather -- including solar flares that can disrupt signals from satellites and, in extreme cases, can even blow out transformers on our terrestrial power grids.

The probe is the first NASA spacecraft with a living namesake. Eugene Parker is a University of Chicago professor emeritus in physics who first proposed the concept of the solar wind. His 1958 paper was initially ridiculed but has come to be central to our understanding of the solar system and beyond. 

To "touch" the sun, the spacecraft will make a swing by Venus to shed some of its sideways momentum, allowing it to take a more straight shot toward the center of the solar system. The extreme pull of the sun's gravity will then accelerate the probe up to insane speeds of as much as 430,000 miles per hour (700,000 km/h) as it grazes the edge of the most powerful object in our corner of the galaxy.

At those speeds, the spacecraft will reach the sun by November, and scientists hope to have early data back from the probe by the end of the year. 

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