NASA has recently revealed their latest plans for a new mission to launch a spacecraft directly at the Sun in order to study some of the enduring solar mysteries. While that sounds like a great way to incinerate millions of dollars worth of research and development, the craft won’t be going into the Sun but rather just very close to it. Four million miles (six million km) close. That might not sound very close, but given the extreme temperatures of our Sun’s atmosphere – 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million Celsius) – four million miles is close enough.
The mission has been dubbed Solar Probe Plus and is slated to launch in 2018. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland is leading the research mission to explore what is essentially the final frontier in our solar system. Even though the Sun might lie at the center of our Solar System, we still don’t know a great deal about what makes it tick.
The mission will attempt to answer some of the most important questions about our life-giving burning ball of gas including determining what accelerates the solar corona and solar winds and studying the plasma and magnetic fields of the Sun. While those objectives sound pretty science-y and all, the mission’s official website claims that there is much more at stake than publishable data:
[…] we don’t do this just for the basic science. One recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that without advance warning a huge solar event could cause two trillion dollars in damage in the US alone, and the eastern seaboard of the US could be without power for a year. In order to unlock the mysteries of the corona, but also to protect a society that is increasingly dependent on technology from the threats of space weather, we will send Solar Probe Plus to touch the sun.
This aspect of solar activity is receiving more and more attention from scientists lately. Solar flares are now thought to cause many of the glitches and failures in consumer electronics, and some NASA scientists even speculate that solar activity could be causing mass marine life deaths. As long as Solar Probe Plus figures out why people sneeze when looking at the Sun, I’ll consider it a success.