NASA Wants to Plunge a Probe Into the Sun

Some like it hot, but do deep-space solar probes? We'll know soon enough.

NASA is developing an ambitious new mission to plunge a car-sized probe directly into the sun's atmosphere, boldly going where no spacecraft has gone before.

The program, called Solar Probe Plus, is planned for 2018. The space agency hopes the incredibly challenging mission to the previously unexplored region will unlock some of the sun's biggest mysteries.

"This project allows humanity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before," said Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe Plus program scientist at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. "For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun."

To keep the craft safe as it nears the sun, where temperatures can exceed 2550 degrees Fahrenheit and blasts of intense radiation bake the air, it will feature a revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield. The Solar Probe Plus will have an up close and personal view of the sun -- enabling scientists to better understand, characterize and forecast the radiation-heavy environment for future space explorers.

"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 Washington.

"We've been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers."

The five experiments selected for inclusion on the spaceship, which will cost about $180 million total, 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.

The Solar Probe Plus mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program. The program is designed to understand aspects of the sun and Earth's space environment that affect life and society.