The Solar Probe, a car-sized spacecraft, is scheduled to launch no later than 2018 and will fly closer to the Sun's surface than any other probe, NASA stated. Ultimately the spacecraft's goals are to help scientists understand why 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, NASA said. "We've been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers," said Dick Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington in a statement.
NASA said the spacecraft will feature a carbon-composite heat shield that must withstand temperatures exceeding 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit and blasts of intense radiation. The spacecraft will repeatedly dive low into the Sun's atmosphere to conduct its experiments, NASA stated.
NASA said it winnowed down about 13 experiments proposed to fly onboard the Solar Probe to five. The total dollar amount for the five selected investigations is approximately $180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests. The selected experiments from NASA's statement are:
- Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: principal investigator, Justin C. Kasper, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. This investigation will specifically count the most abundant particles in the solar wind -- electrons, protons and helium ions -- and measure their properties. The investigation also is designed to catch some of the particles in a special cup for direct analysis.
- Wide-field Imager: principal investigator, Russell Howard, Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. This telescope will make 3-D images of the sun's corona, or atmosphere. The experiment actually will see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft. This investigation complements instruments on the spacecraft providing direct measurements by imaging the plasma the other instruments sample.
- Fields Experiment: principal investigator, Stuart Bale, University of California Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. This investigation 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 spacecraft's antenna.
- Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun: principal investigator, David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. This investigation consists of two instruments that will take an inventory of elements in the sun's atmosphere using a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions in the vicinity of the spacecraft.
- Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus: principal investigator, Marco Velli of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Velli will provide an independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a community.
Currently NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is the agency's main Sun watching spacecraft. NASA launched the $808 million spacecraft Feb. 11 to study the Sun and send back pictures about sunspots, solar flares and a variety of other never-before-seen solar events. The idea is to get a better idea of how the Sun works and let scientists better forecast the space weather to offer earlier warnings to protect astronauts and satellites, NASA said.
The SDO for example is looking to determine how the sun's magnetic field -which SDO scientists said never appears the same way twice -- is generated, structured and converted into violent solar events such as turbulent solar wind, solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in our planet's magnetosphere and upper atmosphere. SDO will provide critical data that will improve the ability to predict these space weather events.
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