Wednesday October 18th 2017

Rocket to the Sun

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NASA is planning a mission to the Sun, but don’t worry they’ll be flying at night. Frustrated by budget cuts, and angry about the end of the program, NASA has decided to give a whole new meaning to burning money. Ok, they are both bad jokes, but maybe if that was the headline more people would pay attention. The reality is just as exciting to a Nerd though.

In the Summer of 2008, NASA announced a proposal for the launching of a probe directly towards our Sun’s corona (atmosphere) for the purpose of studying and getting a better understanding of how flares and solar winds are created, as well as to get a better look at the overall composition. This would mean that the probe would need to withstand heats in excess of 10,000 degrees F (or 5500 degrees C). The game plan they are aiming for, however, if for a heat resistance of at least 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (which should take it close enough to get some nice shots of nuclear fire).

Ironically, this target resistance is less than the requirement for re-entry on the heat shield of the space shuttle, which is 3,000 degrees F (1,650 degrees C), but there is a really good reason for this. The heat shield on the shuttle is built to withstand this heat upon re-entry and essentially burn away to protect the ship. The heat shield required for the solar probe needs to maintain this protection for a prolonged period, as well as the magnified radiation, and not dissolve. Any damage or fragments could seriously interfere with the probes sensors and negate analysis. In addition to the Sun, the probe may also take a look and Mercury and Venus, but to what extent (if any) is still to be determined.

A few days ago (Sept 2nd), it was confirmed that the project is still on the calendar and NASA is beginning the mission planning and development stage to determine some of the potential experiments. I’ve paraphrased some of the proposed studies below. For more details, please click here to visit the official NASA website.

  • Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation – investigation and measure solar electrons, protons and helium ions, and if possible catch some of the particles for direct analysis.
  • Wide-field Imager – make 3-D images of the sun’s atmosphere and solar winds/shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft.
  • Fields Experiment – make direct measurements of atmospheric electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves. Capture any solar/atmospheric dust, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft’s antenna.
  • Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun – consists of two instruments that will monitor electrons, protons and ions that are accelerated to high energies in the sun’s atmosphere.

The launch date has been moved up from 2015 and is now planned for sometime in 2018. It should reach the designated observation orbit of the Sun (4 million miles away) within 2 months. That’s pretty fast considering the Sun is an estimated 92,955,807 miles (149,597,871 kilometers) away. (By the way, just a nerdy fact, the approximate distance from the Earth to the Sun is called an AU or Astronomical Unit. Pretty self centered, but it is considered a standard measurement in astronomy.)

So what are they calling this planned miracle of science? Solar Probe Plus. Yep. For some reason I keep thinking of fiber cereal, but maybe I am getting old.

You can view a quick clip from NASA on the proposed probe design below, but you can get more information at the official NASA Solar Probe Plus website.

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