NASA Plans Unprecedented Sun Probe

Dennis Faas's picture

These days we hear a lot about the sun and, more specifically, global warming. But how much do we really know about the sun?

NASA plans to find out more about the sun by launching a $180 million probe into the giant star. It could help researchers learn more about the sun's power and its impact on our environment.

NASA, which is calling the spacecraft Solar Probe Plus, plans to send the device through the sun's corona sometime between now and 2018. Its goal: to collect data regarding the sun's heat (specifically the corona), and how and why the corona generates solar winds.

Solar Probe Must Withstand Incredible Heat

Of course, the mission's main challenge is developing a probe that can withstand the sun's incredible heat.

Reports so far suggest that Solar Probe Plus, which is a project of Johns Hopkins University's Baltimore-based Applied Physics Lab, figure that the device will need to be able to withstand temperatures in the range of 1,400 degree Celsius. (Source:

That means the design must be significantly better than that used for space shuttle heat shields, which are designed to melt away on re-entry into our atmosphere.

Andy Dantzler, the project manager behind the Johns Hopkins mission, says figuring out how to get a device close enough to the sun to perform critical data collection will prove an enormous challenge for his team.

"The whole point of the mission is to do particle detection and in situ measurements. If you're measuring part of your shield that's not going to work," Dantzler said. (Source:

Craft to Get Closer to Sun Than Ever Before

Early reports suggest one strategy will be to have Solar Probe Plus make about two dozen journeys around the sun, progressively inching closer to its target with every loop. The craft is expected to eventually get within 4 million miles of the sun -- that doesn't sound very close, but it's actually about eight times closer than any probe in the past.

Researchers are understandably excited about the project's potential. "For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun," said NASA's Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe Plus program scientist.

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