We will soon get closer to the Sun than ever before, as NASA’s Solar Probe Plus has just passed a critical development milestone.
The probe, which is expected to be launched in the summer of 2018, will come within just 6 million kilometers (3.7 million miles) of the Sun's surface, seven times closer than any other spacecraft before. This will be made possible by completing 24 orbits and seven flybys of Venus before the probe approaches the Sun.
The probe, which is being built at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland, has now been moved into the system assembly, integration, test, and launch stage of the project.
“Reaching this stage means a lot to the team and our stakeholders,” said Andy Driesman, Solar Probe Plus project manager, in a statement. “It shows we’ve designed a spacecraft, instruments and a mission that can address the engineering challenges associated with the harsh solar environment, and send back the data that scientists have sought for decades. It’s humbling to see designs and ideas start to become a spacecraft.”
The probe will carry four instruments to study the magnetic field, the solar wind, and the energetic plasma surrounding the Sun. The information collected will provide crucial data and help us better understand space weather.
The grazing of the solar surface will put the probe under extreme conditions, but thanks to an 11.5-centimeter-thick (4.5-inch-thick) heat shield, it will survive the extremely high temperatures around our star. The probe is expected to experience temperatures of about 1,400°C (2,500°F).
Solar Probe Plus will also be able to achieve more than just science. In its approach to the Sun, it will be accelerated to an incredible 200 kilometers per second (124 miles per second), which will make it the fastest ever man-made object.