In Brief
  • NASA will make an announcement on Wednesday, May 31, about Solar Probe Plus.
  • The mission, set to launch next summer, will give us new information about our star and the potential damage solar weather could cause.

Touching the Sun

On Twitter, NASA announced that on Wednesday, May 31, it will provide more details about a mission to send its Solar Prob Plus seven times closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has gone before. The probe’s website says its launch window will be between July 31 and August 19, 2018.

The probe will fly within about 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) of the Sun’s surface, facing temperatures of 1,400 Celcius (2,500 Fahrenheit) and huge amounts of radiation. For protection against the extreme conditions it will use a 11.4-centimeter (4.5-inch) thick carbon-composite shield.

The probe will attempt to orbit the Sun 24 times in six years and 11 months, using seven Venus gravity-assisted flybys to help it achieve speeds of nearly 725,000 kilometers (450,000 miles) per hour.

The Predicted Orbit of Solar Probe Plus. Image Credit: NASA
The Predicted Orbit of Solar Probe Plus. Image Credit: NASA

Studying the Sun

The mission will help us understand more about the nature of our solar system by discovering the star at the heart of it. The probe has three central objectives:

Trace the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the solar corona and solar wind.

Determine the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind.

Explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.

While this will give us insight for further studying the star powering warming our world, it will also serve a crucial social purpose: to garner more information on solar weather to help us protect our planet and satellites. NASA estimates that a huge unpredicted solar event could knock out satellites and cost the U.S. alone up to $2 trillion in damage — potentially even causing long-term electricity shortages worldwide.