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Mission to a Star: NASA’s Solar Probe Plus

Solar Probe Plus deploys its solar arrays and begins drawing power for its trip toward the Sun. Credit: JHU/APL

Given all that recent solar storm activity that the Sun has been tossing at the Earth – it’s time for space researchers to hurl something toward the Sun!

A Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) team is developing NASA’s Solar Probe Plus – a spacecraft that will make the closest-ever flights past the Sun.

Planned for launch in 2018, Solar Probe Plus will orbit the sun 24 times, gradually moving in toward the Sun with each pass. The small car-sized spacecraft will zip through the Sun’s atmosphere as close as four million miles from our star’s surface – exploring a region, and facing conditions, no other spacecraft ever has encountered!

Doing so demands some critical technologies.

Solar Probe Plus will carry a revolutionary carbon-carbon composite heat shield and other components that must withstand temperatures exceeding 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit and impacts from hypervelocity dust particles.

In addition to the heat shield, the APL team will continue testing and development of other tricky aspects of spacecraft design. For example, engineers will build and test a flight-like active cooling system designed to keep the solar arrays at safe operating temperature throughout the orbit.

Solar Probe Plus is part of NASA’s Living with a Star program, designed to understand aspects of the sun and Earth’s space environment that affect life and society.

“Solar Probe Plus is an extraordinary mission of exploration, discovery, and deep understanding,” says Lika Guhathakurta, the Living with a Star program scientist at NASA Headquarters. “We cannot wait to get started with the next phase of development.”

Nicky Fox, Solar Probe Plus project scientist at APL in Laurel, Maryland said in a recent press statement, that Solar Probe Plus will be a historic mission, flying closer to the sun than any previous spacecraft.

“Encountering the Sun’s atmosphere — or corona — for the first time, Solar Probe Plus will understand how the corona is heated and how the solar wind is accelerated. Solar Probe Plus will revolutionize our knowledge of the physics of the origin and evolution of the solar wind,” Fox said.

By Leonard David

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