Last-minute technical problem delays NASA's flight to sun

The spacecraft will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun. Pic John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab

The early morning launch countdown was halted with just one minute, 55 seconds remaining, keeping the Delta IV rocket on its pad with the Parker Solar Probe.

"The team received a gaseous helium reg pressure alarm that kicked them out", said Mic Woltman with NASA's Launch Services Program.

The launch was supposed to go off early Saturday but was pushed back until 3:31 a.m. Sunday. It will be subjected to brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before.

The mission is named after famed solar scientist Eugene Parker, and is NASA's first to be named after a living person.

Zooming through space in a highly elliptical orbit, Parker Solar Probe will reach speeds up to 692,018 km per hour, setting the record for the fastest spacecraft in history. The spacecraft is created to fly through the sun's super-hot outer atmosphere, called the corona, to study the solar wind and sun storms.

Not only is the corona about 300 times hotter than the Sun's surface, it also hurls powerful plasma and energetic particles that can unleash geomagnetic space storms and disrupt Earth's power grid.

At Parker Solar Probe's closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach almost 1,371 degrees Celsius, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 29.4 degrees Celsius.

During its nominal mission lifetime of just under seven years, Parker Solar Probe will complete 24 orbits of the Sun - reaching within 3.8 million miles of the Sun's surface at closest approach.

The probe will be controlled from the Mission Operations Centre based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL), which is where NASA handles its unmanned missions. "We know the questions we want to answer.".

Parker, now 91, recalled that at first some people did not believe in his theory.

If the probe doesn't launch on Sunday, the window for a successful launch doesn't close until August 23.

The probe is protected by a 4in-thick shield that constantly repositions itself between the sun's power and the scientific instruments on board.

Parker described the Parker Solar Probe as a "a very complex machine", and said he was "impressed". When it nears the Sun, the probe will travel rapidly enough to go from NY to Tokyo in one minute - some 688,000kmh - making it the fastest human-made object.

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