May 31, 2017

NASA's new probe will "finally touch the sun"

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Next year, NASA will launch an unmanned spacecraft to get within 4 million miles of the sun. NASA announced today that they are renaming the probe, initially the Solar Probe Plus, to the Parker Solar Probe, after Gene Parker whose research 60 years ago revolutionized heliophysics.

Why it matters: Assuming a successful launch, this will be the closest a man-made object has come to the sun.

The Earth sits about 93 million miles away and scientists say that we are too far away to answer three outstanding questions:

  1. Why is the sun's surface (the photosphere) cooler than its atmosphere (the corona)?
  2. How does solar wind gets its speed?
  3. Why does the sun emit solar energetic particles that are dangerous to unprotected space travelers?

The spacecraft: In order to withstand the sun's heat, NASA scientists designed a 4.5 inch think carbon-composite shield, which can survive temperatures of 2,500-degrees Fahrenheit. The ship is also equipped with thermal radiators, which will act as tubes to radiate heat back into open space. The probe will travel at about 430,000 mph. What's next: The probe is undergoing its final thermal testing and integration research, and will be moved by the end of the year to its launching point in Florida. In July 2018, the probe will launch into space, it will loop Venus seven times eventually through surfing closer and closer to the surface.

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