NASA's Parker Solar Probe launched from Florida before dawn Sunday aboard a rocket built in Decatur, Ala., and carrying a key scientific instrument built in Huntsville.

Delayed once on Saturday, the Sunday launch at 2:31 a.m. CDT appeared flawless. A few hours later, the missions operations manager reported that the spacecraft the size of a small car was healthy and operating normally.

"This mission truly marks humanity's first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We've accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction."

The probe is bound first for Venus, where it will get a gravity assist -- a move NASA describes as like a handbrake turn -- to trim is orbit tighter around the sun. Ultimately it will fly as close as 15 million miles from Earth's star, closer than any human object has gone. Its mission will last seven years.

On board as one of the probe's instruments is the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) instrument designed and built by a partnership of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

The instrument will collect charged particles of the solar wind as the probe flies through the gases of the Sun's corona.

"This is the only (probe) instrument that will sample the solar wind from this uninhibited location," UAH professor Dr. Gary Zank told a UAH publication. "The SWEAP Faraday Cup will be the first such instrument to fly so close to the sun simply because no spacecraft has ever gone so close to the sun, diving into the deep solar atmosphere as it will, and no other is planned."

The solar wind

Zank explained the solar wind's importance in an interview last week. Different from the radiation that heats our planet, he said the solar wind consists of "a stream of particles that interact with the Earth via the Earth's magnetic field."

As it nears Earth, the solar wind hits the planet's magnetic field and "squashes the side facing the sun," Zank said. "Behind, the Earth's magnetic field is dragged out a very long way to form a tail." Sometimes, because of orientation of the sun's magnetic field, violent releases of energy can occur called "space storms."

"The solar wind also carries or acts as a medium for massive, explosive releases of mass from the sun, called coronal mass ejections or CMEs for short," Zank said.

These mass ejections trigger major disruptions of energy that can destroy satellite computer chips, disrupt communications and GPS systems, and affect "anything that is routed through satellites," Zank said. Their problem-causing potential is enormous. "Imagine the FAA and air traffic control not being able to accurately locate and follow landing and taking off by planes at the Atlanta airport," he said.

It was the observation of comets that gave one of the first clues the solar wind existed. Comets' tails do not stream out behind them opposite their direction of motion, as might be expected, but always point away from the Sun, regardless of the direction the comet is heading. The force that points the tail is the solar wind.

Watching Sunday's launch was Dr. Eugene Parker, the 98-year-old physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958. NASA said this is its first mission named after a living researcher.

The project team

Zank is the chair of UAH's Department of Space Science, and it was his idea for the university to team with the Marshall center's labs to propose an instrument for the probe. Zank teamed with with Jonathan Certain, then a Marshall researcher; Ken Wright of UAH; and UAH graduate student Phyllis Whittlesey, now a researcher at Berkeley's Space Science lab.

They built a Faraday Cup -- a metal container designed to catch and measure charged particles -- and it will be mounted outside the probe's protective shielding.

One of the probe's other goals is studying the sun's corona -- the part visible above the surface during an eclipse -- to improve our understanding of why something above the sun is much hotter than its actual surface.