NASA

NASA launched the first spacecraft meant to get close to the sun Sunday morning.

To the extent that there was much talk about space last week, President Donald Trump’s plan for a “Space Force,” dominated. Meanwhile, NASA went about its business by launching the first spacecraft designed close in on the sun.

The Parker Solar Probe, launched at 3:31 Sunday morning from Cape Canaveral, will study, among other things, space weather caused by the sun that could have big impacts on earth, such as interrupting communications systems.

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

According to The Post:

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.

The BBC reports that the probe is the first space craft named after a living person, Eugene Parker, the astrophysicist who first described solar wind in 1958.

At 91, Parker was still enthusiastic about the launch. “Wow, here we go! We’re in for some learning over the next several years,” he told the BBC.