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Solar Probe Plus to Go Where No One Has Gone Before: Into the Sun


NASA's prepping its Solar Probe Plus mission for a firey sundive. It's no theatrical stunt—it's all about science and understanding how our sun works, which doesn't make it a bit less awesome.

Sometime before 2018, a NASA mission dubbed Solar Probe Plus will rocket into the skies over Earth, spin speedily through the inky, starry void for a hundred million miles, and then it's programmed to crash. Into the sun. Well, not exactly crash, but its mission is no less spectacular than this.

Solar Probe Plus is, as NASA notes, "unprecedented." It's in its early stages of planning, and NASA's just completed an important milestone: Selecting five scientific payloads from a field of thirteen which were shortlisted last year. These five missions will measure electrons, protons and helium ions in the solar wind, produce amazing wide-field 3-D images of the Sun's corona, detect the electromagnetic shock-wave concussions and fields in the solar atmosphere, sample and detect the elements in the atmosphere and attempt to work out the heliosphere's origins. 

But while the surface of the sun sizzles along at a few thousand Celsius, the solar atmosphere itself is a toasty million-plus degrees—so how will the car-sized spacecraft survive? By not going to deep, primarily—it's going to fly into the atmosphere at an altitude of about 4 million miles. Up here its "revolutionary" carbon-carbon composite heat shield (made from similar material to the Space Shuttle's tiles) can protect it from temperatures up to 1,400 Celcius, which is 700 times hotter than the room temperature where you're reading this. It'll even fend off the electronics-crippling effects of radiation.

It's important to perform this science for two reasons: Firstly, the Sun's weather affects Earth more than you may think, and its even responsible for killing communications satellites in orbit. And secondly because it's in the spirit of pure curiosity: We still don't understand much about our nearest and dearest star, even down to exactly why its atmosphere is hotter than its surface.

Plus the mission is exciting. Lika Guhathakurta, one of the program scientists, uses an irresistible sci-fi reference to promote it in NASA's press release: "This project allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before." But we think there's a better one, which will have instantly popped into your mind if you're a Douglas Adams fan. Remember Disaster Area, the loudest rock band in the history of music itself? Remember their impossibly black stuntship, destined to plunge into the sun at the climax of their stage show?

To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.