Scores of Johns Hopkins University scientists watched from a mission operations center in Laurel as the seconds ticked down Saturday morning.
T-minus two minutes.
Then, without notice, the clock stopped, signaling a hiccup in the historic launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., of the Parker Solar Probe, which, if all goes well, will get closer to the sun than anything sent before.
“When you get below T-minus four minutes, you’re committed to going,” Andrew Driesman, project manager for the probe at the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, told The Baltimore Sun. “And then it just stops. The counter just stops and you’re like, ‘What the [expletive] happened?”
One rotation of the Earth later, the NASA probe — designed, built and operated by the Hopkins lab — successfully lifted off at 3:31 a.m. Sunday and began its hurtle toward the sun.
“The last week has been an adrenaline roller coaster,” said Driesman, who watched the launch at Cape Canaveral. “You take this thing you’ve been working on for close to a decade, you put it on I don’t know how many hundreds of pounds of propellant, you launch it into space, and then 45 minutes later, after separation, it says hello.”
“That’s a huge relief.”
Project members at the Laurel operations center erupted in cheers early Sunday morning when it was announced that the probe was operating successfully.
Nick Pinkine, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood and is the mission operations manager for the Parker probe, said Sunday morning was “one of the most memorable moments in my life.”
“As we got closer to the countdown and progressively closer to lift-off, things get a little more stressful, a little more exciting,” said Pinkine. He watched the launch from the Laurel center, where the mission will be operated.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong in any space mission, and this is uniquely challenging and complex,” Pinkine said. “To see things work so far, you probably couldn’t ask for a better start.”
As soon as this fall, the Parker probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. The Earth is 93 million miles away from the sun, and the Parker Probe will eventually get within 3.8 million miles of its surface, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.
Driesman describes the enormity of the mission like this: If two people standing 10 feet apart represent the Earth and the sun, then the Parker probe would be like one of the people walking toward the other until they are less than 6 inches apart.
“Not a lot of room there,” he said.
Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking. APL estimated that it took 4 million working hours to build the probe.
One key to the mission’s success is a 4.5-inch thick carbon shield to protect the probe’s scientific instruments. NASA hired the Hopkins lab in 2008 to design the probe and its heat shield.
The spacecraft will zip past Venus in October, setting up the first solar encounter in November.
"All I can say is, 'Wow, here we go.' We're in for some learning over the next several years," said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.
For the second straight day, thousands of spectators jammed the launch site in the middle of the night as well as surrounding towns, including Parker and his family. Parker proposed the existence of solar wind — a steady, supersonic stream of particles blasting off the sun — 60 years ago. It was the first time NASA named a spacecraft after someone still alive.
The Parker probe will start shattering records this fall. On its very first brush with the sun, it will come within 15.5 million miles, easily beating the current record of 27 million miles set by NASA's Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen expects the data from even this early stage to yield top science papers.
By the time the probe gets to its 22nd, 23rd and 24th orbits of the sun in 2024 and 2025, it will be even deeper into the corona and traveling at a record-breaking 430,000 mph.
Nothing from planet Earth has ever hit that kind of speed.
Zurbuchen considers the sun the most important star in our universe — it's ours, after all — and so this is one of NASA's big-time strategic missions. By better understanding the sun's life-giving and sometimes violent nature, Earthlings can better protect satellites and astronauts in orbit, and power grids on the ground, he noted. In today's tech-dependent society, everyone stands to benefit.
With this first-of-its-kind stellar mission, scientists hope to unlock the many mysteries of the sun, a commonplace yellow dwarf star around 4.5 billion years old. Among the puzzlers: Why is the corona hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun?
“Scientists have speculated for 60 years as to why that occurs,” Driesman said. “We realized we have to go there to figure it out.”