According to Science Alert, NASA is planning to launch a probe that aims to provide us data that will help us answer some of the mysteries surrounding the star closest to us. Named “The Solar Probe Plus,” the mission will dip inside the Sun’s atmosphere, allowing astronomers to study solar storms in greater detail.
In 1976, NASA launched a 370-kilogram probe called Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles of the Sun’s surface. Astronomers launched Helios 2 in order to study solar winds and cosmic rays. With the Solar Probe Plus mission, NASA intends to be more up close and personal with the Sun’s corona than Helios 2.
The fact that our world depends on a network of technology that is vulnerable to the Sun’s solar storms necessitates NASA’s mission to come closer to the Sun’s surface. Not only do we need to study solar flares in the hopes of giving us the necessary data that would help us protect our technology from them, we also need these data to prevent humans from being exposed to radiation once they venture outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Sun probe is set to be launched around August next year, and it will have to take some detours before it arrives to its destination. The little probe is slated to fly past Venus seven times for a period of seven years to navigate through an orbit that will take it within 6 million kilometers of the Sun’s photo sphere. Once there, the probe will be close enough for its sensors to trace its magnetic fields and to capture solar particles without getting consumed by the extreme heat.
“Solar Probe Plus will pass within four million miles of the Sun – that’s almost eight times closer to the Sun than the orbit of Mercury – and provide incredible detail on the dynamic solar atmosphere,” said Jonathan Lunine, the director of the Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Cornell University, according to Z News.
“Solar Probe Plus will fly closer to the Sun than the distance at which even close-in exoplanets orbit their own Suns, giving us unprecedented information on the kinds of environments these planets experience,” he added.
NASA built the probe in such a way that will allow it to sustain extreme temperatures up to 1,400° Celsius (about 2,550° Fahrenheit) while maintaining room temperature.
Science Alert asked Brad Tucker from the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics how NASA will be able to pull off this mission.
“The biggest leap in technology of this mission is the heat shield,” Tucker explained. “The heat shield is an 11.5-centimeter-thick carbon composite shield, which can withstand temperatures of nearly 1,400 degrees Celsius. The use of carbon composite is really allowing us to do much more complicated things.”
On top of the heat shield, the Solar Probe Plus will utilize an active water circulation system to protect instruments as they go about measuring the electric and magnetic fields as well as electron temperature emanating from the Sun’s corona.
The Solar Probe Plus has an imaging system that allows it to send back photos while navigating the Sun’s surface, as well.
“Understanding the activity of the Sun and predicting weather from it is crucial if we really want to have humans explore space more, including working and living on the Moon and Mars,” Tucker said.
Tucker also explained why it’s necessary for NASA to study the Sun’s solar winds.
“By understanding the solar wind in better detail, how it is accelerated namely, it will open up the possibility of using it to accelerate space craft like the one proposed in the Light Sail project,” he explained.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]