Scientist wins solar probe instrument award

The Solar Probe Plus will explore a region no other spacecraft has ever encountered.

Washington: An astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and his science team have secured a proposal award of 8.2 million dollars to help build parts for and test an instrument for the Solar Probe Plus flagship mission to directly sample the Sun’s atmosphere.
“This is the equivalent of a Hubble-class mission for solar physics. We expect the data collected on this mission to have a dramatic and revolutionary impact on the field of solar astrophysics,” said Dr. Jonathan Cirtain.

The Solar Probe Plus will explore a region no other spacecraft has ever encountered. It is a spacecraft the size of a small car that will plunge directly into the Sun’s atmosphere, approximately four million miles from the physical surface of the star.

“While other instruments are hidden, we’ll be right out there getting blasted by the Sun, literally “touching” a star for the first time,” said Justin Kasper, SWEAP principal investigator and a Smithsonian astronomer.

Cirtain and his team now are developing instrument prototypes that will specifically count the most abundant particles in the solar wind - electrons, protons and helium ions - and measure their properties.

The investigation also is designed to sweep up the solar wind in a special conductive metal cup, called a Faraday cup, and determine the speed and direction of the Sun’s particles.

The mission will answer the two pertinent questions scientists have been struggling with for a long time - Why is the Sun’s outer atmosphere so much hotter than the Sun’s visible surface, and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system? – said Dick Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington.