Scientists at NASA and Johns Hopkins University are working on a space probe that will literally touch the surface of the sun. NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, which is currently being built, will cost $1.5 billion and will carry an array of sensors into the sun’s corona, where they will (hopefully) survive temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to collect data for later scientific use.
According to Forbes’s Bruce Dorminey, who spoke with Ralph McNutt of Johns Hopkins University, one of the probe’s team leads, creating a spacecraft that can survive contact with the sun requires considerable scientific mastery:
At its very closest approach of only 3.8 million miles from the Sun’s surface, SPP will be subjected to up to 475 times the solar irradiance experienced at Earth. Thus, the science collection phases of the mission during close encounters are designed to be autonomous. That is, without real-time direction from ground-controllers.
Data taken during these collection phases will be saved on solid state recorders for subsequent downlink via a high gain antenna pointed back to Earth.
The probe’s thermal protection system is an 8-foot-diameter, 4.5-inch-thick, carbon-carbon, carbon foam shield that sits atop the spacecraft. Basically, most of the entire spacecraft “hides” behind this shield during the spacecraft’s closest approach to the Sun, says McNutt.
Solar Probe Plus is being built by NASA with assistance from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab and scientists from a variety of other universities and institutes. The probe itself is expected to launch in 2018, and is possible thanks to recent scientific innovations that make it possible to create spacecraft components that will work while touching the surface of the sun.