Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NASA to probe the sun

June 10, 2008: For more than 400 years, astronomers have studied the sun from afar. Now NASA has decided to go there.

"We are going to visit a living, breathing star for the first time," says program scientist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA Headquarters. "This is an unexplored region of the solar system and the possibilities for discovery are off the charts."

The name of the mission is Solar Probe+ (pronounced "Solar Probe plus"). It's a heat-resistant spacecraft designed to plunge deep into the sun's atmosphere where it can sample solar wind and magnetism first hand. Launch could happen as early as 2015. By the time the mission ends 7 years later, planners believe Solar Probe+ will solve two great mysteries of astrophysics and make many new discoveries along the way.

[. . .]

The two mysteries prompting this mission are the high temperature of the sun's corona and the puzzling acceleration of the solar wind:

Mystery #1—the corona: If you stuck a thermometer in the surface of the sun, it would read about 6000o C. Intuition says the temperature should drop as you back away; instead, it rises. The sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, registers more than a million degrees Celsius, hundreds of times hotter than the star below. This high temperature remains a mystery more than 60 years after it was first measured.

Mystery #2—the solar wind: The sun spews a hot, million mph wind of charged particles throughout the solar system. Planets, comets, asteroids—they all feel it. Curiously, there is no organized wind close to the sun's surface, yet out among the planets there blows a veritable gale. Somewhere in between, some unknown agent gives the solar wind its great velocity. The question is, what?

"To solve these mysteries, Solar Probe+ will actually enter the corona," says Guhathakurta. "That's where the action is."

All I can say is that I sure hope they're planning to go at night!