Parker Solar Probe Moved to Launch Pad for Aug 11 Flight to 'Touch' the Sun

Parker Solar Probe, encapsulated with a 62.7-foot fairing, was transported to Launch Complex 37 overnight to meet its rocket, the U”A Delta IV Heavy, which will launch it to ‘touch’ the sun as soon as August 11 at 3:48 a.m. EDT. Photo Courtesy: Twitter @Fox35DerrolNail

Humanity’s first mission to ‘touch’ a star is rapidly approaching an opening launch attempt from Florida on August 11, and last night NASA’s Parker Solar Probe (PSP) was transported from its clean room processing facility to Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to meet the rocket which will launch it to the sun, the triple-barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy.

Built by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the lightweight car-sized PSP is the most autonomous spacecraft ever made, and will become the fastest human-made object in history when it makes its closest approach to the sun, traveling at speeds of up to 430,000 miles per hour (700,000 kilometers per hour) as it swoops through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times over a period of 7 years, or as fast as traveling from New York City to Tokyo in less than one minute.

And while everything on the spacecraft is now GO for flight, the $1.5 billion mission has faced several delays this summer, as it was originally scheduled to launch in late July. The most recent stemming from final inspections following the encapsulation of the spacecraft within its bullet-like payload fairing, when a small strip of foam was found inside the fairing, forcing workers to take additional time to look everything over. Additional time was also needed prior to that, to evaluate and modify the configuration of a cable clamp on the payload fairing.

Parker Solar Probe, encapsulated with a 62.7-foot fairing, was transported to Launch Complex 37 overnight to meet its rocket, the U”A Delta IV Heavy, which will launch it to ‘touch’ the sun as soon as August 11 at 3:48 a.m. EDT. Photo Courtesy: Twitter @Fox35DerrolNail

Teams also had to repair a leak in the purge ground support tubing on the third stage rocket motor, which was discovered during final spacecraft processing in mid-July, and prior to that, the launch date slipped from July 31 to accommodate further software testing of spacecraft systems.

The spacecraft was lifted and mated to the third stage rocket motor, a Star 48BV from Northrop Grumman, on July 11, which will help PSP gain the speed needed to reach the Sun, which takes 55 times more energy than reaching Mars according to NASA. It was then encapsulated within its 62.7-foot fairing on July 16.

PSP only has until August 19 to launch, otherwise it will miss the planet Venus, whose gravity the spacecraft will need to “steer” itself into the proper orbits of the sun for the mission’s science objectives, getting closer and closer with each orbit. If they can’t launch by then, they’ll have to wait for the next window of opportunity in May 2019, when Venus is in position again to give PSP the gravity-assists it needs to reach the brutally hostile corona and sample the sun’s atmosphere.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta-IV Heavy underling a Wet Dress Rehearsal on Space Launch Complex 37B for NASA’s upcoming Parker Solar Probe launch, slated for no earlier than August 11, 2018. Photo Credit: ULA

ULA’s 177-foot tall (without payload) rocket itself has been ready to go for some time, having already undergone critical pre-flight testing with two Wet Dress Rehearsals (WDR), or practice countdowns, in early July to uncover any issues and validate that the launcher, systems, launch team and ground support equipment are all ready to send the spacecraft on its mission to the sun.

Once the spacecraft is mounted on top and integrated with the full rocket, the vehicle will stand an impressive 232 feet tall (70.7m), and is aiming to lift-off during a 45-minute launch window opening at 3:48 a.m. EDT August 11. Once off the pad the rocket will head due East from Florida’s Space Coast to deploy the probe on a path to touch the sun and study it in a way never before possible, to answer decades-old questions such as how energy and heat move through the solar corona, what accelerates the solar wind and solar energetic particles, and why is the temperature of the Sun’s surface about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while its corona, or “atmosphere”, can reach millions of degrees Fahrenheit?

Space weather plays a vital role in the health of not only our home planet, but the entire solar system overall. The more we know about how the sun works, the more we can understand and predict how it affects our celestial neighborhood and life here. We’ve been lucky so far, but it’s probably just a matter of time before a Coronal Mass Ejection cripples our satellites and power grids, and if we can have advanced warning that it will occur, it could save us all a lot of trouble. Not to mention, it could open our eyes as to how life on Earth developed and evolved, and teach us a lot about how stars across the universe behave.

 

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Below see some shots of the spacecraft being encapsulated, courtesy of NASA & John Hopkins APL.

 

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is lifted to the third stage rocket motor on July 11, 2018, at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is shown here mated to its third stage rocket motor on July 16, 2018, at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Florida. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Parker Solar Probe was encapsulated within its fairing on July 16, 2018, in preparation for its move to Space Launch Complex 37. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

Parker Solar Probe sits inside half of its fairing. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

 

 

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