NASA has picked the five science investigations that will comprise the Solar Probe Plus mission the U.S. space agency plans to launch in Aug. 2018 to explore a region of the sun no other spacecraft has ever encountered.
“This project allows humanity’s ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before,” said NASA’s Solar Probe Plus program scientist Lika Guhathakurta in a Sept. 2 press release announcing the selected investigations. “For the very first time, we’ll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun.”
The chosen instruments include a solar wind particle detector, a 3-D camera and a device to measure the sun’s magnetic field, among other tools.
As Solar Probe Plus approaches the sun, it will face temperatures exceeding 1,399 degrees Celsius and powerful radiation blasts.
The car-sized spacecraft is expected to take an unprecedented, up-close view of the sun, enabling scientists to better understand, characterize and forecast the radiation environment for future space explorers, NASA officials said.
Researchers submitted 13 proposals for the Solar Probe Plus mission in 2009.
The five NASA picked should cost a total of $180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests.
“The experiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solve two key questions of solar physics: Why is the sun’s outer atmosphere so much hotter than the sun’s visible surface, and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system?” said Dick Fisher, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, in the press release. “We’ve been struggling with these questions for decades, and this mission should finally provide those answers.”
The five experiments are:
- Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: This experiment will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind — electrons, protons and helium ions — and measure their properties.
- Wide-field Imager: This telescope will make 3-D images of the sun’s corona, or atmosphere. The experiment will actually see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft.
- Fields Experiment: This study will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions and shock waves that course through the sun’s atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the probe’s antenna.
- Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun: This experiment will take an inventory of elements in the sun’s atmosphere.
It will use a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions near the spacecraft.
- Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus: This component will provide an independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a community advocate for the mission.