NASA Probe Will Head to the Sun, Withstand 2600-Degree Heat

By Andrew Moseman | September 7, 2010 10:34 am

SPPAt long last, here comes the sun (mission).

Never mind NASA’s numerous observatories; never mind the unmanned Pioneer 10 and Voyager probes careening toward the far reaches of the solar system—no craft has ever gone to the center of the solar system, the sun. This decade that will change. NASA is in the process of selecting the instruments for its Solar Probe Plus, a mission to launch by 2018 that will get closer to then sun than ever before, and hopefully find some answers to the open questions that remain about our life-giving star.

“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 Washington DC. [BBC News]

The probe isn’t quite setting the controls for the heart of the sun, Pink Floyd-style, but it will draw dangerously close.

Eight weeks after launch, Solar Probe Plus will arrive at the sun to begin the first of 24 orbits using flybys of Venus to gradually shrink its distance to the sun. Eventually, it will come as close as about 4 million miles, which is inside the orbit of Mercury and about eight times closer than any previous spacecraft. [Discovery News]

At that distance the spacecraft must be able to withstand temperatures of about 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, at least long enough for the instruments it carries to conduct their study. NASA’s press release counts out the five experiments chosen for this suicide mission, which include:

  • counting the most abundant particles in the solar wind: electrons, protons, and helium ions
  • imaging the corona in 3D
  • directly measuring the magnetic and electric fields in the sun’s atmospheric plasma
  • taking stock of all the elements in the sun’s atmosphere
  • an independent overview of the mission

All this was a long time coming. Physicists who study the sun have wanted to go there since the dawn of the space age more than a half-century ago, but were thwarted by the problem of getting close enough to conduct meaningful studies without burning up in an instant.

Now, finally, we’re getting to know our home star. This year NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has beamed home some stunning views of solar splendor. It won’t be the only one staring at the sun once the billion-dollar Solar Probe Plus takes flight. However, SPP’s mission is still nearly a decade away: The launch was intended for 2015, but NASA delayed the mission three years to spread out its cost.

Related Content:
80beats: Photo Gallery: First Images from NASA’s Astounding Sun-Gazer
80beats: NASA’s Next Observatory Will Stare at the Sun; Predict Solar Storms
DISCOVER: The Satellite That Aims to Succeed Where Icarus Failed (a feature on the Solar Probe Plus)
DISCOVER: Space Weather and the havoc it can cause
DISCOVER: Seeing Sun Storms in Stereo

Image: JHU/APL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • http://www.waynefarley.com/aviation Aviation Blog

    I’m looking forward to see what this probe will reveal about our sun. Wouldn’t geomagnetic storms affect the spacecraft’s operation though?

  • Dennis

    Is it just me, or does that thing remind anyone else of R2-D2’s periscope?

  • bigjohn756

    I hope they don’t make it out of magnesium!

  • James E.

    “—no craft has never gone to the center of the solar system, the sun.”

    I think you mean
    “—no craft has EVER gone to the center of the solar system, the sun.”

    This will be an outstanding mission. I wonder how long it will be before we can send a science package that will send back data while entering the Sun?

  • Roger

    I don’t not think so….

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    Indeed, thanks for the catch, James. Fixed.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    @Dennis
    I can totally see that.

  • Carrie

    Moronic! The money spent on this could be put to much better use.

  • RDX

    @Carrie

    Go back to caves and enjoy your pathetic 30 years of life…

  • Cefiar

    I can see an awful lot of ceramic going into this probe, even if it’s only in ceramic glues (some withstand 3000F).

    As for the geomagnetic storms, radiation hardening would definitely have be one of the most important features of the eventual probe they send. Lets just hope they get it right!

  • SBT

    @Carrie

    Yeah, the money spent on this project ($180 million) could be spent on something much better, like another Harry Potter movie (“HP & the half-blood prince” budget = $250 million), or keep the war in war in Iraq going for about 18 hours.

    Why don’t people like you ever complain about things that are actually _expensive_ in the grand scheme of things?

  • Matthew

    It’s a DALEK!

  • Peer

    2600 Fahrenheit? What kind of scientific unit is that? And in the headline it isn’t even secified, thats the worst of all. “2600 Degree” is missing a unit.

  • Jay Fox

    @Carrie:

    Americans spend way more money on makeup than is spent on all space missions combined. And that’s only roughly half the population. Are you one of those?

    Personally, I’d rather the money be spent on space exploration. No amount of makeup will change who you are, or what you know. Knowledge gained from space exploration will.

  • B

    I can understand renewed missions to the Hubble Space Telescope to maintain and upgrade the technology. And I support a new generation ground based telescope capable of imaging Earth-like planets in relatively nearby stars. But, a 5 ton space probe to the Sun does not make sense. What does NASA want to do..??
    If a space probe is not recoverable it should not be sent off. The use of precious materials does not justify the extra information demanded by scientists.

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