Mission to the Sun!

SPP spacecraft observing the Sun

Artist's concept of Solar Probe Plus, solar panels folded into the shadows of its protective shield, gathering data on its approach to the Sun.

  • Solar Probe Plus to launch by 2018
  • Will go 20 times closer than Earth is to the Sun
  • Will have to survive temperatures of 1,400 degrees Celsius

NASA has begun development of a mission to visit and study the Sun closer than ever before. The unprecedented project, named Solar Probe Plus, is slated to launch no later than 2018.

The small car-sized spacecraft will plunge directly into the Sun’s atmosphere approximately 6.4 million kilometres (four million miles) from the star’s surface. (By comparison, Earth orbits approximately 150 million kilometres from the Sun.) It will explore a region no other spacecraft ever has encountered.

This week, NASA has selected several science investigations to go on the mission to unlock the Sun’s biggest mysteries.

SPP spacecraft leaving Earth

Artist's concept of Solar Probe Plus leaving Earth, bound for the inner Solar System and an unprecedented study of the Sun.

“The experiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solve two key questions of solar physics—why is the Sun’s outer atmosphere so much hotter than the Sun’s visible surface and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our Solar System?” said Dick Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington.

“We’ve been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers.”

As the spacecraft approaches the Sun, its revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield must withstand temperatures exceeding about 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,550 degrees Fahrenheit) and blasts of intense radiation.

The spacecraft will have an up-close and personal view of the Sun, enabling scientists to better understand, characterise and forecast the space radiation environment for future space explorers.

Going where no spacecraft has gone before

NASA invited researchers in 2009 to submit science proposals. Thirteen were reviewed by a panel of NASA and outside scientists. The total dollar amount for the selected investigations is approximately US$180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests.

SPP spacecraft on Venus flyby

Artist’s concept of Solar Probe Plus, fully deployed in cruise configuration, flying past Venus during one of the seven gravity assists that will send it closer to the Sun.

The selected proposals are:

  • Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: Will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind—electrons, protons and helium ions—and measure their properties. The investigation also is designed to catch some of the particles in a special cup for direct analysis.
  • Wide-field Imager: This telescope will make 3-D images of the Sun’s corona, or atmosphere. The experiment actually will see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft.
  • Fields Experiment: This investigation will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the Sun’s atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft’s antenna.
  • Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun: This investigation consists of two instruments that will take an inventory of elements in the Sun’s atmosphere using a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions in the vicinity of the spacecraft.

“This project allows humanity’s ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before,” said Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe Plus programme scientist at NASA Headquarters, in Washington.

“For the very first time, we’ll be able to touch, taste and smell our Sun.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JHU / APL.

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  1. admin says:

    The spacecraft’s Sun shield will provide protection, not only from heat, but also from other types of radiation emitted by the Sun. It will use shield technology derived from the MESSENGER spacecraft, which is soon to go into orbit around the innermost planet, Mercury.
    Solar Probe Plus will fly much closer to the Sun than the orbit of Mercury. It will conduct a number of “gravity assist” fly-bys of the planet Venus, with it’s solar orbit adjusted each time to bring it closer and closer to the Sun. I think there will be eight such orbits of the Sun, the final three of which will be very close — around the 6 million kilometre mark, as mentioned in the story.
    It’ll be a marvelous mission, something I remember reading about in a sci-fi story when I was a kid (a long time ago!).

  2. Jeff12 says:

    What an amazing mission! How will they keep it from burning up? How long will the mission last?