The University of Minnesota was awarded a $7 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to build a component of a NASA spacecraft slated to travel to the sun by 2018.
The University submitted a grant proposal to NASAâÄôs Solar Probe Plus project earlier this year. Last week, it was one of five institutions awarded a grant out of the 13 that submitted proposals.
The $180 million project will bring an unmanned spacecraft as close as four million miles away from the surface of the sun âÄî the first time a man-made object has ventured within the sunâÄôs atmosphere.
âÄúThis project allows humanity’s ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before,âÄù Solar Probe Plus program scientist Lika Guhathakurta said in a statement. âÄúFor the very first time, we’ll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun.âÄù
The University will be responsible for constructing an instrument called the time-domain sampler. The instrument is very familiar to Keith Goetz, associate program director of the College of Science and EngineeringâÄôs School of Physics and Astronomy.
âÄúThe time-domain sampler is really KeithâÄôs expertise,âÄù Cynthia Cattell, a University physics professor, said. âÄúItâÄôs something heâÄôs built for a number of other missions.âÄù
The spacecraft will fly directly into the sunâÄôs atmosphere, or corona, to try and gain a better understanding of the corona and the sunâÄôs constant production of charged particles called solar winds.
Consisting of mostly electrons and protons, solar winds charge particles and travel at a million miles an hour.
A spacecraft the size of a compact car will make elliptical orbits around the sun, plunging into the sunâÄôs atmosphere periodically and moving closer to its surface with each dive.
The idea for this mission has been around since the 1970s, but until now it has not been technologically feasible.
The spacecraftâÄôs specially designed heat shield must resist temperatures up to 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit as well as intense radiation emitted from the sun.
Ben Krenz, a law school student and economics major, was surprised by the announcement. Krenz does not believe the millions of dollars invested in the mission will yield results that would surpass the cost.
Goetz, who is leading the UniversityâÄôs time-domain sampler project, believes this mission will produce a plethora of information for scientists and researchers.
âÄúWeâÄôre likely to learn a lot of interesting new physics that is applicable not only to understanding our sun but understanding similar stars elsewhere,âÄù Goetz said.
Todd McTavish, a first-year student, believes NASAâÄôs grant to the University will benefit the school for many years to come.
âÄúIt shows weâÄôre a really respected research institution,âÄù McTavish said. âÄúItâÄôs an honor that they [NASA] can trust us.âÄù
The mission is expected to continue into the mid-2020s, with years of research to follow the spacecraftâÄôs delivery of information to scientists.
âÄúTo get picked for a big project like this is pretty exciting for the people here in space physics,âÄù Goetz said. âÄúFor me, itâÄôs really the best.âÄù