While satellites orbit the Earth and spacecraft have traveled to other cosmic bodies, the Sun has thus far escaped human exploration.
This will change, however, in 2018, according to astronomy lecturer Justin C. Kasper in a talk on Tuesday regarding NASA’s impending solar probe.
“Solar Probe Plus is a really exciting mission at the forefront of scientific space exploration,” Kasper said in his lecture. “We are going to make great leaps in understanding some of the fundamental questions in heliophysics.”
Kasper is a principal investigator at NASA, and his work focuses on the “crown” that surrounds the Sun, or the corona, which has historically been an area of contention among astronomers.
Very little is definitively known about the corona, but scientists have determined that there exists a volatile part, dubbed “solar wind,” in which the particles accelerate to supersonic speeds.
According to Kasper, however, a few fundamental questions remain unsolved by astronomers after 50 years of extensive research. These questions form the crux of his Solar Probe Plus mission.
“First, what gives the corona its structure? And second, what heats and accelerates the solar wind?” Kasper said.
In order to answer these questions, Kasper and his team are constructing a spacecraft to fly directly into the corona to take concrete measurements. The mission is Kasper’s own personal project, one that has been under discussion since 1990. After receiving NASA’s approval for the venture in 2008, the specific instruments needed for the mission were selected in 2010. The construction of the actual equipment and spacecraft is beginning this year.
In preemptive defense of a common argument that space exploration is both irrelevant and frivolous in this period of economic decline, Kasper emphasized the practical aspects of his work.
“Fundamentally it’s helping us better understand our home in space,” he said. “It also helps us in very practical terms too. This research will help us comprehend space weather and forecast solar events that have the potential to disrupt activities here on Earth.”
Audience members said that they were intrigued by the questions tackled in the talk and the potential impact that the solar probe could have on current understandings of the solar system.
“I like unsolved mysteries. In class they just tell us that the corona is really hot and that we don’t know why,” said Nicholas M. Induni ’15. “It’s amazing to see that there is an actual craft being constructed and that we are flying it to the sun to actually get to the bottom of these questions.”
According to Kasper, this mission is a product of the sudden focus on sun-centered space exploration in the field of astronomy.
“There are a lot of very exciting opportunities both to explore new places to which we’ve never sent spacecraft and to make discoveries that will have impacts back here on Earth,” he said.