NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

A NASA spacecraft zoomed toward the sun on Sunday (local time) on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

The Mobile Service Tower is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket with the Parker Solar Probe onboard, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Fla. A last-minute technical problem Saturday delayed NASA's unprecedented flight to the sun. Rocket maker United Launch Alliance said it would try again Sunday, provided the helium-pressure issue can be resolved quickly. Once on its way, the Parker probe will venture closer to our star than any other spacecraft.  (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
Parker Solar Probe. Source: Associated Press

As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the surface in the years ahead, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.

No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted.

"All I can say is, 'Wow, here we go.' We're in for some learning over the next several years," said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.

Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November.

Altogether, the Parker probe, will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family. He proposed the existence of solar wind — a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun — 60 years ago.

It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive, and Parker wasn't about to let it take off without him. Saturday morning's launch attempt was foiled by last-minute technical trouble. But Sunday gave way to complete success.

The Delta IV Heavy rocket thundered into the pre-dawn darkness, thrilling onlookers for miles around as it climbed through a clear, star-studded sky. NASA needed the mighty 23-story rocket, plus a third stage, to get the diminutive Parker probe — the size of a small car and well under a ton — racing toward the sun.

From Earth, it is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) to the sun, and the Parker probe will be within 4 percent of that distance at its closest. That will be seven times closer than previous spacecraft.

"Go, baby, go!" project scientist Nicola Fox of Johns Hopkins University shouted at liftoff.

It was the first rocket launch ever witnessed by Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He came away impressed, saying it was like looking at the Taj Mahal for years in photos and then beholding "the real thing" in India.

"I really have to turn from biting my nails in getting it launched, to thinking about all the interesting things which I don't know yet and which will be made clear, I assume, over the next five or six or seven years," Parker said on NASA TV.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's science mission chief, was thrilled not only with the launch, but Parker's presence.

"I'm in awe," Zurbuchen said. "What a milestone. Also what's so cool is hanging out with Parker during all this and seeing his emotion, too."

Parker, the probe, will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles (25 million kilometers), easily beating the current record of 27 million miles (43 million kilometers) set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. Zurbuchen expects the data from even this early stage to yield top science papers.

By the time Parker gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph (690,000 kilometers per hour).

Nothing from Planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.

Even Fox has difficulty comprehending the mission's derring-do.

"To me, it's still mind-blowing," she said. "Even I still go, really? We're doing that?"

Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe — it's ours, after all — and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions. By better understanding the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature, Earthlings can better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, he noted. In today's tech-dependent society, everyone stands to benefit.

With this first-of-its-kind stellar mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5 billion years old. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun and why is the sun's atmosphere continually expanding and accelerating, as Parker accurately predicted in 1958?

"The only way we can do that is to finally go up and touch the sun," Fox said. "We've looked at it. We've studied it from missions that are close in, even as close as the planet Mercury. But we have to go there."

The spacecraft's heat shield will serve as an umbrella, shading the science instruments during the close, critical solar junctures. Sensors on the spacecraft will make certain the heat shield faces the sun at the right times. If there's any tilting, the spacecraft will correct itself so nothing gets fried. With a communication lag time of 16 minutes, the spacecraft must fend for itself at the sun. The Johns Hopkins flight controllers in Laurel, Maryland, will be too far away to help.

A mission to get close up and personal with our star has been on NASA's books since 1958. The trick was making the spacecraft small, compact and light enough to travel at incredible speeds, while surviving the sun's punishing environment and the extreme change in temperature when the spacecraft is out near Venus.

"We've had to wait so long for our technology to catch up with our dreams," Fox said. "It's incredible to be standing here today."

More than 1 million names are aboard the spacecraft, submitted last spring by space enthusiasts, as well as photos of Parker, the man, and a copy of his 1958 landmark paper on solar wind.

"I'll bet you 10 bucks it works," Parker said.


Topics



Malians vote in presidential runoff amid security concerns

Malians are voting on Sunday (Monday NZ Time) in a second round presidential election to determine if incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will remain in office in this sprawling West African nation threatened by rising extremist violence. He faces off against opposition leader Soumaila Cisse.

Observers watch as Malian incumbent President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, casts his ballot during the Presidential second round election in Bamako, Mali, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. Malians are voting Sunday in a second round presidential election with Boubacar Keita facing off against opposition leader Soumaila Cisse. (AP Photo/Annie Risemberg)
Source: Associated Press

Sunday's polls opened to light rain and light turnout. Many worry that the vote could be marred by violence. In the July 29 first-round presidential vote, extremists killed three election workers and destroyed some voting materials.

Nearly 43 percent of voters made it to the polls last month and at least 671 polling stations were closed. Despite the relatively low turnout officials called the vote well-conducted.

Mali has grown more insecure since Keita beat Cisse in a second round election in 2013.

Malian authorities arrested three jihadists on Friday who said they were preparing to carry out an attack during the vote in Bamako, said Mali army spokesman Col. Idrissa Traore on Sunday.

Extremists are staging more bold attacks that have spread to central Mali, where both Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants are present. Deadly communal clashes between ethnic groups and accusations of heavy-handed counterterror operations have caused even deeper tensions and mistrust of the state.

Still, a second term for Keita, 73, seems likely. He received 41.7 percent of the vote in the first round from a field of 24 candidates and has gained endorsements from some other candidates.

Dressed in his traditional white boubou, Keita voted near his home in Bamako on Sunday.

"I hope that everyone will be very vigilant," he said, saying that any suspected attempts at fraud should be reported to police. "Ultimately this election must end as it should, with the celebration of democracy ... This is what we hope for in our hearts.

Cisse, 68, who placed second in the first round with nearly 18 percent of the vote, has blamed Keita for insecurity, violence and corruption. His opposition party also alleges there was voting fraud in July. Cisse has not received major endorsements from failed candidates but does have the backing of a popular spiritual leader Mohamed Ould Bouye Haidara.

"This time, I have a good feeling," Cisse has said.

His campaign director Tiebile Drame charged there were cases of stuffing of ballot boxes in several northern locations. However the constitutional court on Wednesday said it has registered more than 10 requests from the opposition over various anomalies in the first round, but most were declared inadmissible.

On Saturday, the opposition organized a march "to warn against the fraud."

Issa Namory Keita, a 57-year-old retiree, said he would vote for the incumbent, Keita.

"Unlike his challenger, my candidate knows the country well and it is he who has the solution to the problems," he said.

Another voter who was unrelated but with the same family name, Fanta Keita, said she will also vote for the current president.

"He is a man who loves his country, he is a worker who has opened several development sites and I hope he continues his work," she said.

Voter turnout trickled throughout the day and it expected to remain low. Some people have fled areas of violence until the vote is over.

In central Mali, attacks have become more frequent amid communal clashes as neighbors suspect one another of being recruited by extremist groups. Meanwhile, Malian soldiers in recent months have been accused of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, during counterterror operations.

On Wednesday, armed men attacked the Boni prefecture, according to a Malian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not permitted to speak to the press. The armed men killed the prefect's secretary.

Malian authorities have tried to reassure the public and encourage them to go to the polls for the second round.

Residents in central Mali, however, have said they don't see the increased security. Many in the municipalities of Pignariba, Lowel-Gueou and Bara-Sara have said they likely won't be able to vote.


Topics

TODAY'S
FEATURED STORIES

Watch: Lift off! NASA spacecraft rockets towards sun for closest look yet

NASA has launched a spacecraft to the sun that will fly closer to our star than anything ever sent before.

The Parker Solar Probe rocketed away from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Sunday.

It's on an unprecedented quest that will take it straight through the wispy edges of the corona, or outer solar atmosphere, just 6 million kilometres from the sun's surface.

Protected by a revolutionary new heat shield, the spacecraft will fly past Venus in October. That will set up the first solar encounter in November.

Altogether, it will make 24 close approaches over the next seven years.

Thousands of spectators jammed the launch site, including 91-year-old astrophysicist Eugene Parker for whom the spacecraft is named. He proposed the existence of the solar wind 60 years ago.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will flu closer to the Sun than anything ever sent before. Source: Associated Press


Topics