Sophisticated sensors being developed for NASA’s Solar Probe Plus

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NASA’s Solar Probe Plus
Draper and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are developing sophisticated sensors for a new NASA mission. Draper/Twitter

NASA’s new mission may revolutionise people’s understanding of the sun.  In an attempt to collect new data on solar activity and help people counteract severe damage to planetary surfaces that can be caused by high-energy particles emitted by the sun, NASA Solar Probe Plus is a historic mission.

It will travel further into the centre of the solar system at speeds of 200 km/sec (124.27 mi/s) and deal with scorching temperatures in excess of 1,371 °C.  Scientists will be able to glean insights on the critical link in the Sun-Earth connection. The new data that will be collected will be crucial as it will aid in forecasting space weather that has impact on life on Earth.

Massachusetts-based non-profit engineering organisation Draper Laboratory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) have collaborated to develop specialised sensors for NASA’s new mission.  The spacecraft’s design is being handled by the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Interestingly, the spacecraft and instruments will have a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield that can withstand extreme temperatures.

The NASA Solar Probe Plus is slated to be launched in 2018.   It will journey for about seven years, zipping closer to the Sun to study the dynamic star.

"There are incredible mysteries hidden within our sun," stated project scientist Dr Nicola Fox.  Attempting to “touch” the face of the Sun to learn more about its behaviour may help mitigate risks to many things in the planet that an increasing number of people rely on – modern communications, energy systems, aviation and so on.

Solar flares, in particular, are deemed as particularly hazardous.  When the Sun emits a burst of charged particles, it can wreak havoc on aircraft, electrical systems and Earth’s satellites. The Solar Probe Plus will try to measure coronal mass ejections and solar flares.

The SAO with technical support from Draper built a Faraday cup (named after English scientist Michael Faraday) for the Solar Probe Plus. It can measure the full force of supersonic solar particles and radiation.  “The challenge will be to capture the data while operating at extreme temperatures on the fastest moving manmade spacecraft ever created… and do it with accuracy,” the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics conveyed in a press statement.

NASA's next journey inside the Sun's atmosphere heralds another milestone for Draper, which has been providing engineering solutions to government, industry and the academe. As a not-for-profit research and development organisation, Draper has been giving keen focus on the design, development and deployment of advanced technological solutions for some of the world's pressing problems.