NASA Aims to Plunge Car-Sized Probe Into the Sun

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. (Image credit: JHU/APL [Full Story])

NASA isdeveloping an ambitious new mission to plunge a car-sized probe directly intothe 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 announcedThursday.

The spaceagency has picked the five science experiments to ride aboard the newsun-exploring spacecraft. The instruments include a solar wind particledetector, a 3-D camera, and a device to measure the sun's magnetic field, amongother tools.

"Thisproject allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gonebefore," said NASA's Solar Probe Plus program scientist Lika Guhathakurta ina statement. "For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste andsmell our sun." [AmazingNew Sun Photos]

As Solar Probe Plus approaches the sun, it will face temperatures exceeding2,550 degrees Fahrenheit (1,399 degrees Celsius) and powerfulradiation blasts.

The spacecraftis expected to take unprecedented, up-close view of our home star, enablingscientists to better understand, characterize and forecast the radiationenvironment 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 preliminaryanalysis, design, development and tests.

"Theexperiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solvetwo key questions of solar physics: Why is the sun's outer atmosphere so muchhotter than the sun's visible surface, and what propels the solar wind thataffects Earth and our solar system? " said Dick Fisher, director of NASA'sheliophysics division, in a statement. "We've been struggling with thesequestions for decades, and this mission should finally provide thoseanswers."

The five experiments are:

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

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

FieldsExperiment: Thisstudy will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radioemissions and shock waves that course through the sun'satmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector,registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the probe'santenna.

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

Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus: This component will providean independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a communityadvocate for the mission.

The SolarProbe Plus mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program. The program isdesigned to understand aspects of the sun and Earth's space environment thataffect life and society.

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