NASA is finally doing it — scientists have launched a first-ever mission to touch the Sun.
In its 59-year history, NASA has committed a lot of firsts — it has landed rovers on Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Pluto; in 2012 the Voyager I was the first manmade object to ever leave the solar system; and NASA, of course, was the first to put a man on the moon on July 20, 1969.
But the sun, the biggest and brightest beacon in the solar system, represents a whole new kind of first.
Despite its relative proximity — it’s about 93 million miles away — no spacecraft has made it within 27 million miles of the burning orb. Why? Heat, of course. The surface of the sun maintains temperatures of about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to NASA.
But now NASA plans on getting a whole lot closer. At a press conference at 11 a.m. on May 31, NASA will announce the details of the Solar Probe Plus Mission from the University of Chicago’s William Eckhardt Research Center Auditorium.
— The SETI Institute (@SETIInstitute) May 30, 2017
The mission, Solar Probe Plus, is scheduled to launch in the summer of 2018. Placed in orbit within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, and facing heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history, the spacecraft will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.
NASA said the data collected by the probe could help improve forecasts of major space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.
At 4 million miles up, the probe will have to endure temperatures over 2,500 degrees F, while keeping it’s payload at room temperature, Science Alert reported.
“The biggest leap in technology of this mission is the heat shield,” Brad Tucker from the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics told Science Alert.
“The heat shield is an 11.5-centimetre-thick carbon composite shield, which can withstand temperatures of nearly 1,400 degrees Celsius [2,550 degrees F]. The use of carbon composite is really allowing us to do much more complicated things.”
Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.