Nasa mission to hottest of hotspots

Artist's impression of the Solar Probe leaving Earth's atmosphere. Photo / Nasa
Artist's impression of the Solar Probe leaving Earth's atmosphere. Photo / Nasa

Nasa is planning to send a mission to one of the most inhospitable places in the universe - the sun itself.

The US space agency has begun development of a mission to visit and study the sun closer than ever before. The unprecedented project, named Solar Probe Plus, is slated to launch no later than 2018.

The small car-sized spacecraft will plunge directly into the sun's atmosphere approximately four million miles from our star's surface. It will explore a region no other spacecraft ever has encountered.

Nasa has selected five science investigations that will unlock the sun's biggest mysteries.

"The experiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solve two key questions of solar physics:

(a) Why is the sun's outer atmosphere so much hotter than the sun's visible surface? and

(b) What propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system?

"We've been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers", said Dick Fisher, director of Nasa's Heliophysics Division in Washington, DC.

As the spacecraft approaches the sun, its revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield must withstand temperatures exceeding 2550 degrees Fahrenheit and blasts of intense radiation.

The spacecraft will have an up close and personal view of the sun enabling scientists to better understand, characterise and forecast the radiation environment for future space explorers.

- NASA, NZHERALD STAFF

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