NASA's Solar Probe Plus Will Touch the Sun

Monday, 30 November 2015 - 11:26AM
Monday, 30 November 2015 - 11:26AM
NASA's Solar Probe Plus Will Touch the Sun
Almost 60 years ago, NASA began talks to send a "suicide probe" into the Sun itself to burn up almost immediately after gathering groundbreaking information about our star. Now, NASA is planning a mission to the Sun, and while the probe won't go inside the Sun and burn into a crisp, it will enter the Sun's atmosphere for the first time, giving scientists invaluable data on the Sun's corona.

As a result of the Sun's extreme environment, there's still plenty that we don't know about our star. The Solar Probe Plus, which is projected to launch in 2018, will primarily seek to explain why the corona, or the layer of plasma surrounding the Sun, is so much hotter than its surface, as well as what accelerates the solar wind. 

If all goes according to plan, then over seven years, the probe will use the momentum from seven Venus flybys to get extremely close to the Sun, almost ten times closer than Mercury. It won't land on the surface, but the spacecraft and its 10 thermally-protected instruments will touch the boiling hot corona. The craft will need to survive temperatures of over 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and as a result, the entire probe is essentially built to hide behind solar arrays.

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"The solar arrays do retract and there is a battery," team leader Ralph McNutt told Forbes. "But even at [closest approach], part of the arrays remain illuminated to provide power."
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Once the probe reaches the corona, it will take the first-ever direct images of it and take samples from the solar wind. Scientists have theorized that there is a connection between the solar wind and Earth's climate, and learning about the cause of solar wind would help us answer questions about everything from the effects of space weather on other planets to Earth's climate change. 

This will be the closest we've ever come to the Sun, but going inside it is a different story. Although NASA first talked about a suicide probe in 1958, we still don't have the technology that would allow the probe to survive long enough within the Sun's atmosphere to send back meaningful data.

Opening quote
"For a suicide probe to make scientific sense, it would need to survive well past SPP's planned closest approach and receive an extremely high data rate against the [solar] background," said McNutt. "How one could do that is unclear at best."
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Science
NASA

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