NASA sends probe to ‘touch the face of the SUN’ in attempt to understand the threat of space weather

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Getting too close to the sun is never advisable. It’s a gigantic ball of energy with core temperatures going beyond 15 million degrees Celsius.

However, NASA intends to launch a spacecraft next year that’ll get closer to our parent star than any piece of man-made technology ever has before.

Called the Space Probe Plus, it will attempt to travel within 6.4 million km of the sun’s surface. It will conduct 24 flybys of the sun with NASA hoping it can learn more about the sun’s behaviour.

The Solar Probe Plus spacecraft is set to launch as early as July 2018
(Photo: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

“When clouds of high-speed charged particles come racing off the sun, they can bathe spacecraft, astronauts and planetary surfaces in damaging radiation,” explained the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which is helping develop sensors for the craft.

“Understanding why the sun occasionally emits these high-energy particles can help scientists predict space weather. Knowing when solar energetic particles may hit Earth can help people on the planet take precautions.”

The space probe has a planned launch window between 31 July and 18 August 2018.

After launch, the mission is set to last six years and 11 months.

The Solar Probe Plus will use seven flybys of Venus to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun until it reaches its closest point.

A solar flare arising from the surface of the sun
(Photo: PA)

At its closest approach, the unmanned spacecraft will be travelling at a speed of 450,000 miles (725,000 km) per hour.

“In addition to answering fundamental science questions, the intent is to better understand the risks space weather poses to the modern communication, aviation and energy systems we all rely on,” said Justin C. Kasper, principal investigator at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and University of Michigan Professor in Space Science.

“Many of the systems we in the modern world rely on – our telecommunications, GPS, satellites and power grids – could be disrupted for an extended period of time if a large solar storm were to happen today. Solar Probe Plus will help us predict and manage the impact of space weather on society.”

(Photo: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

Instruments aboard the space probe will be protected from solar radiation by a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield.

This will need to withstand temperatures of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,377 degrees Celsius).

The Helios 2 space probe holds the record for being the spacecraft to have travelled closest to the sun.

Launching in January 1976m the probe flew to within 26 million miles (43 million kilometers) of the sun.

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