NASA Aims to Plunge Car-Sized Probe Into the Sun
The Solar Probe Plus spacecraft, with solar panels folded into the shadows of its protective shield, gathers data on its approach to the Sun.
Credit: JHU/APL [Full Story]

NASA is developing an ambitious new mission to plunge a car-sized probe directly into the sun's atmosphere, boldly going where no spacecraft has gone before.

The spacecraft, called Solar Probe Plus, is slated to launch no later than 2018, NASA announced Thursday.

The space agency has picked the five science experiments to ride aboard the new sun-exploring spacecraft. The instruments include a solar wind particle detector, a 3-D camera, and a device to measure the sun's magnetic field, among other tools.

"This project allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before," said NASA's Solar Probe Plus program scientist Lika Guhathakurta in a statement. "For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun." [Amazing New Sun Photos]

As Solar Probe Plus approaches the sun, it will face temperatures exceeding 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit (1,399 degrees Celsius) and powerful radiation blasts.

The spacecraft is expected to take unprecedented, up-close view of our home star, enabling scientists to better understand, characterize and forecast the radiation environment for future space explorers, NASA officials said.

Researchers submitted 13 proposals for the Solar Probe Plus Mission in 2009. The five NASA picked should cost a total of $180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests.

"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 a statement. "We've been struggling with these questions for decades, and this mission should finally provide those answers."

The five experiments are:

Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: This experiment will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind -- electrons, protons and helium ions ? and measure their properties.

Wide-field Imager: This telescope will make 3-D images of the sun's corona, or atmosphere. The experiment will actually see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft.

Fields Experiment: This study 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 probe's antenna.

Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun: This experiment will take an inventory of elements in the sun's atmosphere. It will use a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions near the spacecraft.

Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus: This component will provide an independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a community advocate for the mission.

The Solar Probe Plus mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program. The program is designed to understand aspects of the sun and Earth's space environment that affect life and society.

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