Despite the February cancellation of a planned return to the moon, NASA announced this week that the space agency would set its sights on a mission to another celestial body: the sun.
The project, dubbed "Solar Probe Plus," will send an unmanned spacecraft into the sun's corona, some four million miles from the surface of the star. The probe, equipped with a revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield, will brave temperatures of up to 2,500 degree Fahrenheit and bursts of solar radiation in order to give scientists an up-close and personal look at the engine of our solar system.
Solar Probe Plus has been in the works for several months; NASA published an announcement of opportunity for scientific investigations in December, inviting researchers to submit project proposals to the agency. The selected proposals, announced this week, include and analysis of the abundance and properties of particles in solar wind, direct measurements of the sun's electric and magnetic fields, and 3-D imaging of the sun's atmosphere. The probe is set to launch in 2018.
Scientists won't have many resources to work with: while NASA made its original call for project proposals in December, a February 18th amendment to the announcement following Obama's scrapping of NASA's moon mission capped the cost of scientific projects at $180 million for analysis, design, development, and testing. The probe's total payload is constrained to 40kg due to the projected size of the unmanned launch vehicle.
Despite these limits, the mission highlights what small, cheap robotic missions can accomplish. "This project allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before," said Lika Guhathakurta, a Solar Probe Plus program scientist, in a press release. 'For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste, and smell our sun."
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Jared Keller is a journalist based in New York. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, and Al Jazeera America, and is a former associate editor for The Atlantic.