NRL's wide-field imager selected for Solar Probe Plus mission

Sep 29, 2010 By Donna McKinney
Artist's concept of the Solar Probe Plus approaching the sun. Credit: NASA

NASA has chosen the Naval Research Laboratory's Wide-field Imager to be part of the Solar Probe Plus mission slated for launch no later than 2018. The Solar Probe Plus, a 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 in an effort to unlock the sun's biggest mysteries.

For decades, scientists have known that the corona, or the outer atmosphere, is several hundreds of times hotter than the visible solar surface and that the accelerates up to supersonic speeds as it travels through the corona. In the mission, scientists hope to find answers to the questions: why is the so much hotter than the ? And how is the solar wind accelerated? The answers to these questions can be obtained only through in-situ measurements of the solar wind down in the corona.

NRL's Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) is one of five science investigations selected by NASA for this mission. It is the only optical investigation because the solar environment is so hot the instruments need to be tucked behind a heat shield. NRL's Dr. Russell Howard, the principal investigator, says, "This is an extremely exciting mission - no other spacecraft has ever gone this close - it is like the early voyagers of the earth, we don't really know what to expect, but we know, whatever it is, it is going to be spectacular."

The imager is a telescope, which looks off to the side of the heat shield, and will make 2-D images of the sun's corona as the spacecraft flies through. But like a medical CAT scan, the orbit of the spacecraft through the corona will enable 3-D images and a determination of the 3-D structure of the corona. The experiment actually will see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft. "We'll be flying through the structures that we've only seen from 100 million miles away. We'll be able to see all the phenomena (mass ejections, streamers, shocks, comets, and dust) up close. Other instruments will be able to measure the magnetic and electric fields and the plasma itself," explains Howard. This investigation complements instruments on the spacecraft by providing direct measurements of the plasma far away as well as near the spacecraft - the same plasma the other instruments sample.

The other four investigations chosen for the Solar Probe Plus mission include:

• The Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation 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 catch some of the particles in a special cup for direct analysis. (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts)
• The Fields Experiment will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the sun's atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft's antenna. (University of California Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, California)
• The Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun consists of two instruments that will take an inventory of elements in the sun's atmosphere using a mass spectrometer to weigh and sort ions in the vicinity of the spacecraft. (Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas)
• The Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus is led by Dr. Marco Velli who is the mission's observatory scientist, responsible for overseeing assembly of the spacecraft. He will ensure adjacent instruments do not interfere with one another and guide the overall science investigations after the probe enters the sun's atmosphere. (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California)

The Solar Probe Plus mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program. The program is designed to understand aspects of the sun and Earth's space environment that affect life and society. The program is managed by NASA'S Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with oversight from NASA's Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Division. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, is the prime contractor for the .

Explore further: Elon Musk gets fresh challenge with space contract

Provided by U.S. Navel Research Lab

5 /5 (4 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

CfA will play major role in mission to 'touch' the sun

Sep 14, 2010

When NASA's Solar Probe Plus (SPP) launches before the end of the decade, it will carry a suite of cutting-edge scientific instruments. Only one - the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) Investi ...

Satellites Will Improve Understanding of the Sun

Aug 17, 2006

NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory mission will dramatically improve understanding of the powerful solar eruptions that can send more than a billion tons of the sun's outer atmosphere hurtling into ...

SECCHI team obtains images of the solar wind at Earth

Dec 07, 2007

Using the Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation (SECCHI) instruments on board NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft, a consortium of scientists has seen, for the first ...

Recommended for you

Video: MAVEN set to slide into orbit around Mars

6 hours ago

A NASA mission to Mars led by the University of Colorado Boulder is set to slide into orbit around the red planet this week after a 10-month, 442-million mile chase through the inner solar system. 

Dawn operating normally after safe mode triggered

6 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The Dawn spacecraft has resumed normal ion thrusting after the thrusting unexpectedly stopped and the spacecraft entered safe mode on September 11. That anomaly occurred shortly before a planned ...

Repaired Opportunity rover readies for 'Marathon Valley'

6 hours ago

With a newly cleared memory, it's time for Opportunity to resume the next stage of its long, long Martian drive. The next major goal for the long-lived rover is to go to Marathon Valley, a spot that (in images ...

Image: Rainbow aurora captured from space station

9 hours ago

Auroras occur when particle radiation from the Sun hits Earth's upper atmosphere, making it glow in a greenish blue light. ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst has one of our planet's best views of this phenomenon, ...

Experts: Mystery fireball was Russian satellite

12 hours ago

People from New Mexico to Montana saw the bright object break apart as it moved slowly northward across the night sky. Witnesses described it as three "rocks" with glowing red and orange streaks.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
4 million miles...

The solar constant at that range is around 845,000 watts per square meter.

That's like being on the inside of a microwave oven at full power.
Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
Heck no, what the heck am I saying? That's like 500 times more than the inside of a microwave oven...
sender
1 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2010
microwave emissions from the sun must be shielding the true signature of the heat given off by the photosphere, on a similar note a few cyclotrons could allow for a permanent base in the corona shielded from the heat and utilizing some bleed heat for energy production and beam power