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Solar probe to study sun's atmosphere

Newark, Del. -- A Delaware researcher says he is helping design scientific instruments to be sent on a one-way expedition -- directly into our sun.

William Matthaeus, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, is taking part in NASA's Solar Probe Plus project, slated to launch by 2018, a university release said.

The unmanned spacecraft will plunge directly into the sun's atmosphere to help answer perplexing mysteries about our sun.

"The experiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solve two key questions of solar physics -- why is the sun's outer atmosphere so much hotter than the sun's visible surface, and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system?" Dick Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division, said.

An unmanned mission to the sun has been discussed for years, Matthaeus says, but had to wait for carbon-fiber and other technology that could protect a space probe from the sun's intense heat.

"At the Solar Probe's closest approach, the light from the sun will be more than 500 times as intense as at Earth, and the surrounding gas, although very tenuous, will likely be at hundreds of thousands of degrees," Matthaeus said.

Matthaeus leads the effort to develop instruments for monitoring the electrons, protons and ions that continuously stream from the sun, known as solar wind. The radiation can cause magnetic storms capable of knocking out electrical power grids.

"The more we rely on satellite technology, such as GPS, the more vulnerable to magnetic storms we become. So we need to understand how they work in order to protect societal assets such as satellites in space, as well as humans who explore or work in space," Matthaeus said.

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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