TAMPA (US): Nasa yesterday blasted off a US$1.5 billion (RM6.14 billion) spacecraft towards the sun on a historic mission to protect the Earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.
“Three, two, one, and lift off!” said a Nasa commentator as the Parker Solar Probe lit up the dark night sky aboard a Delta IV-Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3.31am (0731 GMT).
The unmanned spacecraft aims to get closer than any human-made object in history to the centre of our solar system.
The probe is designed to plunge into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.
It is protected by an ultra-powerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth.
Nasa has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to “touch the sun”.
In reality, it should come within 6.16 million kilometres of the sun’s surface, close enough to study the curious phenomenon of the solar wind and the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, which is 300 times hotter than its surface.
The car-sized probe is designed to give scientists a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out the power grid.
These solar outbursts are poorly understood, but pack the potential to wipe out power to millions of people.
A worst-case scenario could cost up to two trillion US dollars in the first year alone and take a decade to fully recover from, experts have warned.
“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. — AFP