NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launches on a mission to study the sun and its dangers

  • Steve Gribben NASA Illustration
  • Updated 

It was dark on Earth when NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched on its journey to endless day. The first spacecraft designed to swoop by a star took flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3:31 EDT Sunday morning. A roaring Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the probe out of Earth’s atmosphere. Next stop: A loop past Venus to rendezvous with the sun.

The source of all light and life on Earth is also the source of one of its biggest natural threats: space weather. The sun’s atmosphere regularly erupts with fast-moving flashes of protons and explosions of energetic particles that can hit Earth within minutes and disrupt radio communication, interfere with GPS, and fry the electric grid. A “worst-case scenario” space weather event could cause more damage than Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Sandy combined.

“It sounds like science fiction,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist William Murtagh, who heads the Space Weather Prediction Center. “But it’s something that’s not only possible but very likely to happen in the not-too-distant future.”

Scientists have long struggled to understand and predict space weather events, because the ferocious environment around the sun makes them difficult to witness as they form.

Murtagh and scores of other researchers watched as NASA’s newest spacecraft embarked on a mission that should take it closer to the sun than any human-made object has gone before.

The probe is the culmination of a half-century effort to understand our star, Murtagh says, and it may help us prepare for the hazards the sun may throw at us in the future.

Part of the sun erupted on Sept. 1, 1859. English astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a brilliant white solar flare on the sun, brighter than the sunspots he usually observed. Roughly a day later, a blast of charged particles — known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME — arrived at Earth, jostling the planet’s magnetic bubble. People as far south as Cuba saw the sky light up with auroras. Geomagnetic currents sent surges of electricity through copper telegraph wires, zapping operators and setting telegraph paper aflame.

If a similar event happened today, it would bring life as we know it to a halt.

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