Every so often the sun emits an explosive burst of charged particles that makes its way to Earth and often wreaks havoc on power grids, aircraft and satellite systems. When clouds of high-speed charged particles come racing off the sun, they can bathe spacecraft, astronauts and planetary surfaces in damaging radiation. Understanding why the sun occasionally emits these high-energy particles can help scientists predict space weather. Knowing when solar energetic particles may hit Earth can help people on the planet take precautions.
Now, Draper and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) are addressing these challenges, and hoping to untangle these unsolved science mysteries, by developing sophisticated sensors for a new NASA mission. Launching in 2018, NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft, which is being designed and built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., will make 24 solar flybys over nearly seven years, setting a new record for the fastest moving man-made object as it zips 37.6 million kilometers closer to the sun than any spacecraft that has ever studied this star, and be exposed to temperatures exceeding 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA’s Solar Probe Plus—the first mission that will fly into the sun’s upper atmosphere and “touch” the sun—will collect data on the mechanisms that heat the corona and accelerate the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles from the sun. These are two processes with fundamental roles in the complex interconnected system linking the sun and near-Earth space—a system that can drive changes in our space weather and impact our satellites. … (Harvard CfA)