NASA has postponed until Sunday the launch of its US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) unmanned Parker Solar Probe, to allow engineers more time to investigate a red flag that was raised in the last moment before lift-off.
The problem had to do with the gaseous helium pressure alarm on the spacecraft, officials said today (August 11). The next launch window opens on Sunday.
The first ever spacecraft to fly directly toward the Sun was poised to blast off Saturday, on a mission to plunge into our star’s sizzling atmosphere and unlock the mysteries of the centre of the solar system.
NASA’s car-sized probe was scheduled to launch on a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida during a 65-minute launch window that opened at 3.33am.
By coming closer to the Sun than any spacecraft in history, the unmanned probe’s main goal is to unveil the secrets of the corona, the unusual atmosphere around the Sun. “We are going to be in an area that is so exciting, where solar wind – we believe – will be accelerating,” said NASA planetary science division director Jim Green.
“Where we see huge magnetic fields that are passing by us, as coronal mass ejections make their way out into the solar system.”
Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, but it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms, wreaking havoc on Earth by disrupting the power grid.
But these solar outbursts are poorly understood.
“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 toward the Moon or Mars.