September 7, 2010
NASA and other space agencies have a host of satellites aimed at the Sun, taking pictures and gathering data that scientists are using to better understand how the star we depend on works. None have ever gotten close to the Sun, though. A 1958 National Academy of Science panel recommended that NASA look into sending a probe to our star, but nothing ever came of it. The project was too expensive or technologically unfeasible. Until now.
If all goes according to plan, NASA’s Solar Probe Plus will launch in July 2018 and head towards the Sun. But it wouldn’t go straight in. Instead, its trajectory will take it around Venus, flying by that planet seven times over seven years. Each time it would tighten its oval-shaped path around the Sun, getting closer and closer until it finally zips through the star’s atmosphere, the corona, for the first time, in 2024. In order to survive the journey, the spacecraft will have to be built to withstand energized dust, radiation blasts and temperatures up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.
The spacecraft will investigate several areas of Sun science. Justin Kasper of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is heading up the project that will measure particles in solar wind. Others will make 3-D images of the corona, take an inventory of elements in the Sun’s atmosphere and measure electric and magnetic fields and radio emissions.
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