Friday, March 21, 2014


The Solar Probe Plus, a NASA mission set to launch in 2018, seeks to be a bit like Icarus, but not too much. If you recall Icarus was Daedalus’ son. Imprisoned in a labyrinth Daedalus constructed some wings made out of wax and feathers for himself and his son and planned their escape. He cautioned Icarus to follow his flight path and to be careful not to get to close to the Sun but alas in the childlike excitement Icarus felt over flying, well, needless to say he did fly to close to the Sun and as a result the wings had a little meltage and Icarus fell to his death in the sea below.

Some will tell you the story of Daedalus & Icarus is a story of hubris or perhaps of aiming for a goal too high and too ambitious and they would be wrong. It is a cautionary tale. NASA, unlike Icarus, is heading into advanced development, a new phase; it is planning ahead for a probe that is to go where no probe has gone before. This probe will orbit the Sun not once, not twice but twenty-four times with the aid of seven Venus fly-bys. This probe will reach out and touch a star.

Its goal is to gain answers. The Solar Probe Plus will collect data in one of the most extreme environments; seeking answers to those questions whose answers can only be gained from the solar winds of the corona. Questions such as: why the Sun’s outer atmosphere is so much hotter than the Sun’s visible surface & what accelerates the solar wind? And many more…

This Solar probe will carry 10 scientific instruments and will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere at 118 mile per second. In order to survive the extreme heat and remain operational, collecting data on its scientific instruments the entire time, this probe has presented a challenge to scientists and engineers alike. Now they are another step closer to making it happen.

Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland is managing the mission. APL has managed several technologies that not will enable the probe to tolerate temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit while shielding it from the hypervelocity dust particles such as the carbon-carbon composite heat shield. In addition engineers have built & tested a liquid-cooling system; of course they also had to construct high velocity tests that would simulate flights through swarms of high-energy particles like those found close to the Sun.

The Sun is one of the remaining unexplored regions of the solar system. Since the Sun is also the birth place of space weather, the Solar Probe Plus must boldly go where no probe has gone before.


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