NASA To Send Spacecraft To The Sun: Here's The Technology That Will Make Solar Probe Plus Mission Possible
NASA is set to launch a spacecraft that will go to the sun's atmosphere to conduct research that may unveil the secrets of the solar system's host star.
Solar Probe Plus To Get Into Orbit Within 4 Million Miles Of The Sun's Surface
The Solar Probe Plus, or SPP, the first ever mission to get near the sun, is set to launch by summer 2018. The spacecraft will go into orbit within 4 million miles of the surface of the sun.
Because the probe will be exposed to heat and radiation never before experienced by any spacecraft in history, NASA has made an engineering feat to make the mission possible.
Protecting The Probe And Its Instruments From Heat And Radiation
The spacecraft will face brutal heat and radiation as it gets near the sun. To carry out the unprecedented investigations of the star in close proximity, the spacecraft and the instruments aboard it need to be protected from extreme heat.
"SPP will perform its scientific investigations in a hazardous region of intense heat and solar radiation. The spacecraft will fly close enough to the Sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly though the birthplace of the highest-energy solar particles," NASA said. "At its closest passes the spacecraft must survive solar intensity of about 475 times what spacecraft experience while orbiting Earth."
NASA already has in place technologies for the mission. A 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield that needs to withstand the temperatures outside the probe which reaches nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, will be used to protect the spacecraft and its instruments
Thermal radiators will also be installed on the spacecraft. These special heat tubes will radiate heat that permeates the heat shield to protect the instruments inside the spacecraft. If these work, the instruments aboard the probe will stay at room temperature.
The compact and solar-powered spacecraft will also come with solar arrays that will retract and extend as the probe swings away from or toward the sun during its journey around the inner solar system.
Onboard the spacecraft are instruments that will be crucial for gathering scientific data. These instruments are the Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe (WISPR), telescopes that will capture photos of the solar corona and the inner heliosphere; the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP), a solar wind plasma suite; an electric and magnetic field suite called FIELDS, and the EPI-Lo particle detector, which will measure the low-energy particles that stream from the sun.
The U.S. space agency revealed earlier this month that the EPI-Lo particle detector, the first onboard scientific instrument of the mission was installed on the spacecraft at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) on April 17.
"With EPI-Lo on board - our first scientific instrument - we can begin to call Solar Probe Plus an 'observatory,'" said Solar Probe Plus project manager Andrew Driesman, from APL. "We are looking forward to the integration of the other instruments on the spacecraft, subsequent testing, on-orbit science operations and ultimately new discoveries."