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Eye on the Bay

StarDate: Feeling the Heat

by Damond Benningfield
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FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS McDONALD OBSERVATORY, AS HEARD ON KCBS RADIO WEEKDAYS @ 9:52 A.M., 7:35 P.M. & 2:52 A.M.

STARDATE 07/04/2014: The Sun may feel bigger and brighter during the hot days of summer here in the northern hemisphere, but that’s just an illusion. We’re actually farthest from the Sun for the entire year this week — about a million-and-a-half miles farther than average.

A couple of missions that are under development will give us especially close views of the Sun beginning in a few years. Solar Orbiter will take high-resolution pictures of the Sun from as close as 25 million miles. And Solar Probe Plus will pass less than four million miles from the Sun, carrying it well inside the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona.

Solar Orbiter is a European-led mission that’s scheduled for launch in 2017. It’s designed to help scientists understand how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere — a magnetic “bubble” that surrounds the solar system. The craft will reach temperatures of up to a thousand degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar Probe Plus will get even hotter — up to 2500 degrees. It’s designed to help scientists understand a key component of the heliosphere — a steady stream of charged particles from the surface of the Sun known as the solar wind. It’ll also help them understand why the corona is millions of degrees hotter than the Sun’s surface.

NASA gave the go-ahead to start building Solar Probe Plus earlier this year. If everything goes as planned, it’ll launch in 2018 and make its first close pass by the Sun six years later.

Script by Damond Benningfield Copyright ©2014 The University of Texas McDonald Observatory

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