NASA is about to launch a spacecraft toward our sun, and you’ll be amazed at what they’re going to try to do with it.
NASA has huge plans for our closest star, launching one of the most ambitious missions in years: the Solar Probe Plus. The space agency will be sending that spacecraft within four million miles of the sun in 2018, an incredibly close distance considering the fact that our Earth is 93 million miles away.
Scientists are hoping to use the probe to gather data to help forecast space weather events that affect Earth, like solar flares and storms that knock out communications on Earth and can cause quite a bit of damage. It would be the closest manmade object to the sun ever if the mission is successful, and it will be seven times closer than any spacecraft has ever come to the sun.
NASA hopes to launch the probe between July 31 and Aug. 18 in 2018, according to reports. The mission should last around seven years. The probe will get an assist from Venus, using seven flybys to gradually get closer to the sun until it reaches the ideal point.
Here is what NASA says about the probe on their website.
Solar Probe Plus will be an extraordinary and historic mission, exploring what is arguably the last region of the solar system to be visited by a spacecraft, the Sun’s outer atmosphere or corona as it extends out into space. Solar Probe Plus will repeatedly sample the near-Sun environment, revolutionizing our knowledge and understanding of coronal heating and of the origin and evolution of the solar wind and answering critical questions in heliophysics that have been ranked as top priorities for decades. Moreover, by making direct, in-situ measurements of the region where some of the most hazardous solar energetic particles are energized, Solar Probe Plus will make a fundamental contribution to our ability to characterize and forecast the radiation environment in which future space explorers will work and live.
Our First Visit to a Star
Two of the transformative advances in our understanding of the Sun and its influence on the solar system were the discovery that the corona is several hundreds of times hotter than the visible solar surface (the photosphere) and the development—and observational confirmation—of the theory of the corona’s supersonic expansion into interplanetary space as a “solar wind.”
In the decades that have followed these important milestones in solar and space physics, the composition, properties, and structure of the solar wind have been extensively measured, at high heliolatitudes as well as in the ecliptic and at distances far beyond the orbit of Pluto. The corona and the transition region above the photosphere have been imaged with unprecedentedly high resolution, revealing a complex architecture of loops and arcades, while photospheric magnetography has uncovered the “magnetic carpet” of fine-scale flux bundles that underlies the corona. Observational advances have been accompanied by advances in theory and modeling, with a broad range of models offering plausible and competing scenarios to explain coronal heating and solar wind acceleration.
We now know more about the corona and the solar wind than ever before. And yet the two fundamental questions, raised in the 1940s by the discovery of the corona’s million-degree temperature and in the early 1960s by the proof of the supersonic solar wind’s existence, remain unanswered: Why is the solar corona so much hotter than the photosphere? And how is the solar wind accelerated?
The answers to these questions can be obtained only through in-situ measurements of the solar wind down in the corona. A mission to provide these measurements, to probe the near-Sun particles-andfields environment, was first recommended in 1958, at the dawn of the space age, by the National Academy of Science’s “Simpson Committee.” Since then, NASA has conducted several studies of possible implementations of a Solar Probe mission, and a Solar Probe has remained at the top of various National Academy and NASA science priority lists.
Solar Probe Plus will swoop to within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, facing heat and radiation like no spacecraft before it. Launching in 2018, Solar Probe Plus will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth.
Solar Probe Plus is an extraordinary and historic mission exploring arguably the last and most important region of the solar system to be visited by a spacecraft to finally answer top-priority science goals for over five decades.
But we don’t do this just for the basic science.
One recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that without advance warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone, and the eastern seaboard of the US could be without power for a year.
In order to unlock the mysteries of the corona, but also to protect a society that is increasingly dependent on technology from the threats of space weather, we will send Solar Probe Plus to touch the sun.
We live in the sun’s atmosphere! This mission will provide insight on a critical link in the Sun-Earth connection. Data will be key to understanding and, perhaps, forecasting space weather.
We need to go so close because:
the corona is unstable, producing the solar wind, flares and coronal mass ejections – we need to study at the source!
millions of tons of highly magnetized material can erupt from the sun at speeds of several million miles an hour – fast enough to get from Washington to LA in seconds!
Why is the corona hotter than the surface? Why is there a solar wind?
We can only answer these questions by getting up close and personal with our star
Two views of the sun’s atmosphere
The concept for a “Solar Probe” dates back to “Simpson’s Committee” of the Space Science Board (National Academy of Sciences, 24 October 1958).
The need for extraordinary knowledge of sun from remote observations, theory, and modeling to answer the questions:
Why is the solar corona so much hotter than the photosphere?
How is the solar wind accelerated?
The answers to these questions have been of top priority in multiple Roadmaps and Decadal Surveys.
We live in the atmosphere of the sun.
Physics of the corona and inner heliosphere connect the activity of the sun to the environment and technological infrastructure of Earth will:
drive the fundamental physics of the heliosphere, aurora, and magnetosphere of Earth and other planets
help us improve satellite communications, power grid issues, pipeline erosion, radiation exposure on airline flights, astronaut safety
Until we can explain what is going on up close to the sun, we will not be able to accurately predict space weather effects that can cause havoc at Earth.