Tomorrow, Wednesday May 31 at 11am EDT (4pm BST), NASA is going to make an announcement about a groundbreaking mission that will “touch the Sun”.
The mission is called Solar Probe Plus, with a planned launch date in July 2018. It will come seven times closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before, just 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) from its surface, as it directly samples the solar corona.
We don’t know what the announcement tomorrow is about yet, but NASA will be airing the event live on NASA TV. You can see that here, and we’ve also embedded it below. It will be taking place from the University of Chicago’s William Eckhardt Research Center Auditorium.
According to NASA, Solar Probe Plus will face “heat and radiation unlike any spacecraft in history.” It will “explore the Sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations that will answer decades-old questions about the physics of how stars work.”
The purpose of the mission is not only to learn more about how our star works, but also to better prepare for space weather. The Sun frequently sends storms of particles in our direction, which can hamper satellites operating in Earth orbit.
Solar Probe Plus will be subjected to temperatures of up to 1,370°C (2,500°F). To survive, it will use a 4.5-inch-thick heat-resistant carbon-composite shield. This will protect its various instruments, which will study the Sun’s magnetic field, plasma, and solar wind.
“Solar Probe Plus is an extraordinary and historic mission exploring arguably the last and most important region of the Solar System to be visited by a spacecraft,” NASA notes on its website for the mission.
The spacecraft will be placed in a wide elliptical orbit around the Sun lasting about 170 days. It will sweep from Earth’s orbit down to within eight solar radii of the surface. It will study the Sun in detail at its closest point for about 11 days, with the rest of the time spent sending data back to Earth.
One of the key questions the mission will hope to answer is why the Sun’s corona – its outer atmosphere – is so much hotter than its surface. The temperature on the surface can reach 6,000°C (11,000°F), but the corona can reach a few million degrees. And we still aren’t sure why this is the case.
So tune in tomorrow for what promises to be an exciting announcement. This really is one of the most amazing missions of the coming years, as we seek to learn more about how stars like the Sun really work.