NASA is planning to plunge an unmanned spacecraft into the sun’s corona, its hot outer atmosphere, in an effort “to understand how the Sun influences the Earth.”
“The Solar Probe will literally slice through a bit of the Sun’s atmosphere, and that’s never been done before,” said Richard Harrison, a solar physicist from the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
After this mission, Solar Probe Plus (SPP) will clarify why the corona is much hotter than the sun’s surface and how it generates a solar wind, according to BBC.
“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.
Eight weeks after launch, SPP will gradually get closer to the Sun after completing its 24 orbits using flybys of Venus.
Eventually, SPP will get as close as around 4 million miles and about eight times closer than any previous spacecraft.
“For the very first time, we’ll be able to touch, taste and smell our Sun,” said Lika Guhathakurta, SPP program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.
The program, which is estimated to cost over $1 billion, was first planned to launch in 2015 but to spread out the cost it will be launched in 2018.
Researchers say that the Sun is one of the few places people have not yet sent a spacecraft.