60-Second Science

New NASA Mission to Sun Planned

The technology finally exists to send a probe into close orbit around the sun, which should lead to new information about numerous solar phenomena. Cynthia Graber reports.

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.] 

Here’s one space mission that is definitely going to be unmanned—NASA is going to the sun. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is building a craft that will visit the sun’s corona. It’ll speed past the sun at 125 miles per second, be pelted with energized dust, and exposed to radiation and temperatures up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how to send such a probe for decades, but the technology didn’t exist at a feasible cost until now. The probe will circle the sun for seven years until it reaches its closest approach, about 4.1 million miles from the sun. That’s eight times closer than previous missions. It’ll provide data on a variety of phenomena, such as magnetic fields, solar winds, dusty plasma and energetic particles. Such subjects are more than just interesting—researchers say that understanding energetic particles that zip our way from the sun can affect cell phones and power grids here on the ground, and could threaten the health of astronauts in orbit. The probe is scheduled to launch in 2015.—Cynthia Graber

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