We need to go see – A researcher is helping to design instruments for a robotic space probe that will go where no other has gone before: The sun (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show) because we need to figure out what’s going on up there.

Astrophysicist William Matthaeus is involved in NASA’s Solar Probe Plus project, which is slated to launch by 2018. The unmanned spacecraft, the size of a small car, will plunge directly into the sun’s atmosphere to help uncover answers to perplexing mysteries about the fiery ball of plasma at the center of our solar system.

NASA’s Dick Fisher says, “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? We’ve been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers.”

Astrophysicists have been discussing the idea of sending an unmanned mission to the sun for years, Matthaeus says, but the technology to protect a space probe from the star’s mega-heat was unavailable until recently. To avoid the fate of the mythical Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and melted his wax-and-feather wings, the spacecraft’s heat shield must be able to withstand extremely high temperatures and blasts of intense radiation in the solar atmosphere as it makes the nearly 90-million-mile trip from Earth to within 4 million miles of the sun.

Matthaeus says, “It is a real mission of discovery, visiting the sun’s immediate environment for the first time. All along its journey into the solar atmosphere, Solar Probe will measure many of the ongoing processes that are responsible for maintaining and controlling the heliosphere.

“At the Solar Probe’s closest approach, the light from the sun will be more than 500 times as intense as at Earth, and the surrounding gas, although very tenuous, will likely be at hundreds of thousands of degrees.” Fortunately, NASA engineers have developed an effective special carbon-fiber heat shield and thermal control system.

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