CNN/NASA/EPA: Humanity’s first visit to a star began this weekend. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will explore the sun’s atmosphere in a mission that launched early Sunday. This is the agency’s first mission to the sun and its outermost atmosphere, the corona.
After being delayed on Saturday, the probe successfully launched at 3:31 a.m. ET Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket, one of the world’s most powerful rockets.
Although the probe itself is about the size of a car, a powerful rocket is needed to escape Earth’s orbit, change direction and reach the sun.
The launch window was chosen because the probe will rely on Venus to help it achieve an orbit around the sun.
Six weeks after launch, the probe will encounter Venus’ gravity for the first time. It will be used to help slow the probe, like pulling on a handbrake, and orient the probe so it’s on a path to the sun.
In 2017, the mission was renamed for Eugene Parker, the S Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. In the 1950s, Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars–including our Sun–give off energy. He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields, and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon. Parker also theorised an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is –contrary to what was expected by physics laws–hotter than the surface of the Sun itself. This is the first NASA mission that has been named for a living individual.