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A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences has raised some alarming conclusions about the effect a major solar event could have on the planet Earth. The academy estimated that a huge solar flare could cause at least two trillion dollars in damage in the United States alone and that the eastern seaboard of the United States was particularly vulnerable to a major power outage that could persist for an entire year. In response to these problems, NASA has stepped up to the plate and plans to launch an incredibly innovative mission that will see a spacecraft fly closer to the heart of the Sun than ever before.
NASA plans a groundbreaking mission to the Sun
The new craft, the Solar Plus Probe, will come within four million miles of the surface of the Sun and will face unprecedented levels of heat and radiation. The mission is purely exploratory and hopes to cast new light on the mysteries of the corona of the sun. The corona is the huge hole nestled in the very heart of the sun which is known to generate powerful solar winds, flares, and blasts which can impinge on the atmosphere of the Earth. Astronomers have been grappling with the corona for around fifty years, but it is thought that the only way to truly understand what’s going on is to send a probe to directly observe the corona’s activity.
In order to collect its data, the Solar Plus Probe will pass by Venus seven times in the space of seven years in order to shrink its orbit and gradually bring it closer to the Sun. According to NASA scientists working on the project, it will reach speeds of up to 450,000 miles an hour during these initial stages. Once it gets closer to the Sun, the Solar Plus Probe has a number of tasks to undertake in the course of the mission. It will trace the flow of energy and the structure of plasma and magnetic fields during bursts of solar wind emanating from the corona. It will also explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles during fierce corona related activity.
The ferocious solar activity generated by the corona is not the only mystery the Solar Plus Probe mission hopes to clear up. Astronomers are also interested to know why the corona is generally at much lower temperatures than the rest of the Sun’s atmosphere.
Image: Nature Geoscience.