“We’re gonna land on the Sun!”

September 3, 2010

That’s the punchline to an old Italian joke, at which point we’re supposed to laugh at the stupidity of the Italian scientists. I mean, who would think one could land on the Sun?

Well, it’s not such a joke, anymore:

Solar Probe+ to Plunge Directly into Sun’s Atmosphere

NASA’s daring plan to visit the sun took a giant leap forward today with the selection of five key science investigations for the Solar Probe+ spacecraft.

Slated to launch no later than 2018, the smart car-sized spacecraft will plunge directly into the atmosphere of the sun, aiming to solve some of the biggest mysteries of solar physics. Today’s announcement means that researchers can begin building sensors for unprecedented in situ measurements of the solar system’s innermost frontier.

“Solar Probe+ is going where no spacecraft has gone before,” says Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe+ program scientist at NASA HQ. “For the first time, we’ll be able to ‘touch, taste and smell’ the sun.”

Last year, NASA invited top researchers around the world to submit proposals detailing possible science investigations for the pioneering spacecraft. Thirteen proposals were received and five have been selected:

–SWEAP, the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: The most abundant particles in the solar wind are electrons, protons and helium ions. SWEAP will count these particles and measure their properties, even “sweeping up” some of them in a special Solar Probe Cup for direct analysis. The principal investigator is Justin C. Kasper of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

–WISPR, the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe Plus: WISPR is a telescope that will make 3D images of the sun’s atmosphere similar to medical CAT scans. WISPR can actually see the solar wind, allowing it to image clouds and shock waves as they approach and pass the spacecraft. This telescope is an important complement to the spacecraft’s in situ instruments, which sample the plasmas that WISPR images. The principal investigator is Russell Howard of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

–FIELDS, The Fields Investigation for Solar Probe Plus: This instrument will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves which course through the sun’s atmospheric plasma. FIELDS also turns Solar Probe Plus into a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft’s antenna. The principal investigator is Stuart Bale of the University of California in Berkeley.

Check out the rest of NASA’s press release for more fun details. This will be an impressive feat of engineering: on entering the solar atmosphere, it will have to withstand temperatures around 2,000° Centigrade (3632° Fahrenheit) and blasts of radiation that would cripple a normal craft.


(via WUWT)