The Delta IV Heavy rocket launches Nasa's Parker Solar Probe to the sun at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the US, August 12 2018 Picture: NASA/REUTERS
The Delta IV Heavy rocket launches Nasa's Parker Solar Probe to the sun at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the US, August 12 2018 Picture: NASA/REUTERS

Tampa — Nasa on Sunday blasted off its first spaceship to explore the sun, the $1.5bn Parker Solar Probe, on a mission to protect Earth by unveiling the mysteries of dangerous solar storms.

The launch of the car-sized probe aboard an enormous Delta IV-Heavy rocket lit the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3.31am (8.31 SA time).

The unmanned spacecraft’s mission is to get closer than any human-made object ever to the centre of our solar system, plunging into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, during a seven-year mission.

The probe is guarded by an ultrapowerful heat shield that can endure unprecedented levels of heat, and radiation 500 times that experienced on Earth.

When it nears the sun, the probe will travel at about 692,000km/h. That will be the fastest human-made object yet, speedy enough to travel from New York to Tokyo in a minute.

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off at 3:31 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA's Parker Solar Probe on a mission to the Sun. The mission will perform the closest-ever observations of a star when it travels through the Sun's atmosphere, called the corona. The probe will rely on measurements and imaging to revolutionize our understanding of the corona and the Sun-Earth connection.

“We’ve accomplished something that decades ago lived solely in the realm of science fiction,” he added, describing the probe as one of Nasa’s “strategically important” missions.

Nasa has billed the mission as the first spacecraft to “touch the sun”. In reality it should come within 6.16m km 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.

Scientists hope this close encounter will give them a better understanding of solar wind and geomagnetic storms that risk wreaking chaos on Earth by knocking out power grids. These poorly understood solar outbursts could potentially wipe out power to millions of people.

A worst-case scenario would cost up to $2-trillion in the first year and take a decade for full recovery, experts say.

“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 towards the moon or Mars.

A highly advanced heat shield just 11.43cm thick was devised to keep the probe from melting. The sunlight is expected to heat the shield to 1,371ºC. Yet the inside of the spacecraft will stay at just 29.4ºC.

The probe is set to make 24 passes through the corona, collecting data.

“The sun is full of mysteries,” said Nicky Fox, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.

“We are ready. We have the perfect payload. We know the questions we want to answer.”

The spacecraft is the only Nasa probe in history to be named after a living person — 91-year-old solar physicist Eugene Parker, who first described the solar wind in 1958.

Parker watched the launch at Cape Canaveral, and said it was his first time in person.

“All I have to say is wow, here we go. We are in for some learning over the next several years,” Parker told Nasa television.

Scientists have wanted to build such a spacecraft for more than 60 years, but only recently did the heat-shield technology capable of protecting sensitive instruments become available.

The first launch attempt on Saturday was postponed at the last minute due to technical problem related to a helium gas sensor on the rocket.