NASA's Solar Probe Plus Will Literally 'Touch' The Sun, Spacecraft Will Dive Into Our Star

NASA's Solar Probe Plus is on track with its mission to "touch" the sun and will be launched into space July 2018 with plans to circle Venus before diving into the star's corona.

The solar probe successfully passed a critical mission review last week and will now move into the system assembly, integration, test, and launch stage of NASA's daring project to send a spacecraft directly into the sun.

"This mission of extreme exploration will provide new data on solar activity and contribute significantly to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth."

The project has been 60 years in the making, but NASA finally has the technology to create a spacecraft that can withstand the intense temperatures created by our star. The Solar Probe Plus will have to deal with heat waves measuring 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and still keep its scientific instruments onboard at room temperature.

The solar probe is part of NASA's Living With a Star program and is designed to provide new data on our sun's solar activity and help the prediction of space weather that can impact life here on Earth.

It's being designed and built for NASA by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, according to project manager Andy Driesman.

"Reaching this stage means a lot to the team and our stakeholders. It shows we've designed a spacecraft, instruments and a mission that can address the engineering challenges associated with the harsh solar environment, and send back the data that scientists have sought for decades."
After its launch in 2018, the Solar Probe Plus will orbit the sun 24 times and will circle Venus an amazing seven times as it uses the planet's gravity to slow its approach to our star. The solar probe will use its orbit to get within 3.9 million miles of the sun's surface, the closest any man-made object has come. The space probe will experience temperatures more than 500 times that of spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
The solar probe is designed to carry four sets of instruments to study the sun's magnetic fields, plasma, and energetic particles and image the solar wind. It will study the sun's flow of energy and explore the physical manifestations that create solar wind. To protect the delicate instruments from the high temperatures generated by the sun, the spacecraft will be equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.

NASA hopes the Solar Probe Plus will help it learn more about the sun's physical characteristics, like the massive black hole that's currently spreading over our star.

The black hole is actually a coronal hole that occurs naturally and produces strong solar winds that can play havoc with life here on Earth. The resulting solar storms are so dangerous that some scientists fear civilization could be sent back to the dark ages if a large blast were to strike the Earth.

Solar flares can't physically harm the Earth, but their powerful radiation could easily damage the electronics we have come to rely on. The sun also sporadically spits out coronal mass ejections, like plasma cannon balls, that could fry the planet's power grid if Earth were unlucky enough to be in the way of one.

In 1859 a solar storm known as the Carrington Event knocked out telegraph machines and ignited fires across North America while a small CME knocked out power for 6 million Canadians in 1989. In, 2012 the Earth barely missed being hit by a massive solar storm, which is why the White House teamed up with the National Science and Technology Council to develop a National Space Weather Action Plan to protect vital government networks.

NASA's Solar Probe Plus will help scientists and researchers at the space agency better predict dangerous space weather that can affect life for those of us here on Earth.

[Photo by NASA/AP Images]