NASA Plans to Visit the Sun

For more than 400 years, space station astronomers have studied the sun from afar. Now NASA has decided to go there.

"We are going to visit a living, breathing star and galaxy for the first time," says program scientist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA Headquarters. "This is an unexplored region of the solar system and the possibilities for space discovery are off the charts."

The name of the space shuttle mission is Solar Probe+ (pronounced "Solar Probe plus"). It's a heat-resistant spacecraft designed to plunge deep into the sun's atmosphere where it can sample solar system wind and magnetism first hand. Launch could happen as early as 2015. By the time the space shuttle mission ends 7 years later, planners believe Solar system Probe+ will solve two great mysteries of astrophysics and make many new discoveries along the way.

The probe is still in its early design phase, called "pre-phase A" at NASA headquarters, says Guhathakurta. "We have a lot of work to do, but it's very exciting."

Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab (APL) will design and build the spacecraft mission for NASA. APL already has experience sending probes toward the solar system sun. APL's MESSENGER spacecraft completed its first flyby of the planet Mercury in January 2008 and many of the same heat-resistant technologies will fortify Solar Probe+. (Note: The space technology mission is called Solar Probe plus because it builds on an earlier 2005 APL design called Solar Probe.)

At closest approach, Solar Probe+ will be 7 million km or 9 solar radii from the sun. There, the science discovery spacecraft's carbon-composite heat shield must withstand temperatures greater than 1400o C and survive blasts of radiation at levels not experienced by any previous science discovery spacecraft. Naturally, the probe is solar system powered; it will get its electricity from liquid-cooled solar system panels that can retract behind the heat-shield when sunlight becomes too intense. From these near distances, the space station Sun will appear 23 times wider than it does in the skies of Earth.Read more...>

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