The mission will study the streams of charged particles the sun hurls into space from a vantage point within the sun's corona its outer atmosphere where the processes that heat the corona and produce solar wind occur. At closest approach Solar Probe would zip past the sun at 125 miles per second, protected by a carbon-composite heat shield that must withstand up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and survive blasts of radiation and energized dust at levels not experienced by any previous spacecraft.
In February an APL-led team completed a Solar Probe engineering and mission design study at NASA's request, detailing just how the robotic mission could be accomplished. The study team used an APL-led 2005 study as its baseline, but then significantly altered the concept to meet challenging cost and technical conditions provided by NASA.
''We knew we were on the right track,'' Solar Probe project manager Andrew Dantzler at APL said adding ''Now we've put it all together in an innovative package; the technology is within reach, the concept is feasible and the entire mission can be done for less than 750 million dollar.'' APL will design and build the spacecraft, on a schedule to launch in 2015. The compact, solar-powered probe would weigh about 1,000 pounds.