Strides in technological advancement have allowed humans to send spacecraft to the moon, distant asteroids, and planet Mars, but is it possible to send a probe to the scorching hot sun? Apparently, yes, and it may happen as early as next year.
Objectives Of The Solar Probe Plus Mission
In 2018, NASA plans to launch the Solar Probe Plus mission, which aims to get within 4 million miles from the sun. Astronomers explained that this first mission to fly to the sun could not get to the very surface of the blazing star, but they hope to get the spacecraft close enough to gather data that can answer crucial questions regarding the host star of the solar system.
Scientists hope that the mission will reveal why the solar surface known as the photosphere is not as hot as the sun's atmosphere known as corona. The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but the atmosphere above it is far hotter at 3.5 million Fahrenheit.
"You'd think the farther away you get from a heat source, you'd get colder," said Eric Christian, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Why the atmosphere is hotter than the surface is a big puzzle."
Researchers also want to know how the solar wind get its speed as well as why the sun occasionally produces high-energy particles known as solar energetic particles.
Scientists likewise hope that the mission would provide new data on solar activities that will be critical in humanity's ability to forecast space-weather events that can impact life on Earth.
In a study published earlier in Space Weather, researchers revealed that if a Carrington-like solar storm would affect Earth within the next decade, the event would cost the U.S. $41.5 billion in daily economic losses. It could also knock out transformers that transmit electricity, which can cause massive blackouts.
"Without advance warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone, and the eastern seaboard of the US could be without power for a year," the Solar Probe mission page reads. "In order to unlock the mysteries of the corona, but also to protect a society that is increasingly dependent on technology from the threats of space weather, we will send Solar Probe Plus to touch the sun."
Given the sun's heat, sending a probe that would fly within close proximity to the sun does not come without challenges. To deal with the extreme temperatures, scientists designed a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield so as to help the spacecraft withstand temperatures of 2,500 Fahrenheit outside.
The space probe will also come equipped with special heat tubes known as thermal radiators that will radiate heat that permeates the heat shield so this would not go to the heat-sensitive instruments inside the probe. If these protections would work as intended, the instruments in the space probe will stay at room temperature. The probe will likewise get protection from radiation, which can damage the electrical circuits and memory.