NASA delays launch of first ever solar probe

NASA delays launch of first ever solar probe
© Rebecca Kheel

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA early Saturday scrubbed its planned launch of humankind's first probe to the sun, planning to try again Sunday morning.

When it does launch, the Parker Solar Probe will get as close as 3.83 million miles from the sun’s surface. That's about 95 percent of the way to the surface from Earth and is within the outer atmosphere known as the corona.

The launch was pushed back because a technical glitch on the rocket carrying the probe, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy rocket, caused NASA to run out the clock on its 65-minute launch window Saturday.

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“Teams worked very hard this evening, diligently getting through the launch process, looking at everything that they had to to get into the terminal count this evening,” Mic Woltman, of NASA’s Launch Services Program, said during NASA’s broadcast of the launch attempt. “As we picked up the count at T-minus four and got into a terminal count, the team received a gaseous helium red pressure alarm that kicked them out."

The launch attempt was canceled after multiple delays. Saturday's launch window for the Parker Solar Probe opened at 3:33 a.m.

The launch was first pushed to 3:53 a.m. But four minutes before that, NASA announced a "no-go" as the probe team investigated an issue.

About 4:20 a.m., the team cleared the mission for launch, prompting cheers from spectators lining the NASA Causeway.

But then, with one minutes and 55 seconds to go before the new time, NASA halted the launch.

The new target launch time is 3:31 a.m. Sunday.

The probe is named after Gene Parker, who in 1958 wrote a paper theorizing the expansion of the solar atmosphere and solar wind. It's the first time a NASA mission has been named after a living person.

Among the questions NASA is seeking to answer are why the corona is hotter than the sun’s surface, as well as why the atmosphere is continually expanding and continually accelerating away from the star.

The probe is equipped with a 4 1/2–inch thick carbon heat shield designed to withstand temperatures of about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The shield took more than a decade to develop and 18 months to build.

The probe will make at least 24 passes around the sun, with gravity assists from Venus for seven of them, and continue going after that as long as it has propellant. When it runs out of fuel, it will stay in the sun’s orbit in perpetuity.

In the lead-up to the launch, NASA collected 1.1 million names from members of the public who wanted to symbolically orbit the sun at close range. The names were uploaded to a memory drive that is being carried by the probe.

Updated at 6:17 a.m.