NASA mission to ‘touch the Sun’ launches – led by scientist from Hitchin

Dr Nicky Fox watches the launch on Sunday with Dr Eugene Parker, after whom the Parker Solar Probe i

Dr Nicky Fox watches the launch on Sunday with Dr Eugene Parker, after whom the Parker Solar Probe is named. Picture: NASA/Glenn Benson - Credit: Archant

A NASA mission spearheaded by a scientist from Hitchin yesterday launched a probe to go closer to the Sun than any before.

Dr Nicky Fox, just left of centre, and other members of the Parker Solar Probe team. Picture: NASA/J

Dr Nicky Fox, just left of centre, and other members of the Parker Solar Probe team. Picture: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman - Credit: Archant

Dr Nicky Fox, the project scientist for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission, was born and raised in Hitchin and went to school at St Francis’ College in Letchworth.

The 49-year-old is now based at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, where she has been leading the Parker Solar Probe project for eight years. Her parents still live in Hitchin.

The Parker Solar Probe’s goal, Dr Fox has said, is to “finally go and understand how our star works” – “to touch the Sun”.

The probe is set to become the fastest artificial object in history, careering across our Solar System at 690,000km/h (430,000mph) – fast enough to go from New York to Tokyo in under a minute.

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Sunday. Picture: AP Photo/John Raoux - Credit: AP


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The probe rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida early yesterday morning, following an aborted attempt the day before. The craft separated an hour later, releasing the probe out towards the Sun.

The probe will pass Venus after six weeks and reach the Sun six weeks after that. It will then loop around the star 24 times, coming as close as 6.16 million km (3.83 million miles) to the surface.

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Dr Fox told BBC News: “I realise that might not sound that close – but imagine the Sun and the Earth were a metre apart. Parker Solar Probe would be just 4cm away from the Sun.”

Dr Fox was nine months old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in June 1969. Speaking to the Multiverse programme run by the University of California at Berkeley, she said her father propped her up in front of the television so she could witness the historic event.

Parker Solar Probe, on a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, lifts off at Cape Canaveral. Picture: Malcolm De

Parker Solar Probe, on a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket, lifts off at Cape Canaveral. Picture: Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP - Credit: AP

“He gave me a running commentary through the entire thing and now takes full credit for my interest in space,” she said.

“When I was a young child he would explain to me how the planets rotated around the Sun, and point out stars and planets to me at night.”

After St Francis’, Dr Fox studied at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London, the University of Surrey and then Imperial College again, before moving to the US to join NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, near Washington DC. She has been at Johns Hopkins since 1998, and now has two children.

Of her work, she said: “The most satisfying thing about being a scientist is that you are always trying to discover something new, and every now and then, you actually succeed in this.”

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Sunday. Picture: AP Photo/John Raoux - Credit: AP

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy

The Delta IV rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe lifts off from launch complex 37 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Sunday. Picture: AP Photo/John Raoux - Credit: AP

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