Nasa is to fire a space probe directly at the Sun to answer some of the most important questions about our solar system.
A small car-sized spacecraft will plunge into the sun's atmosphere approximately four million miles from its surface, exploring a region no other spacecraft has ever visited before.
The unprecedented project, named Solar Probe Plus, is scheduled to launch by 2018.
Nasa has selected five science investigations that will unlock the Sun's biggest mysteries as the probe repeatedly passes through its atmosphere.
‘This project allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before,' said Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe Plus program scientist at NASA Headquarters, in Washington.
'For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun.'
As the spacecraft approaches the sun, its revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield must withstand temperatures exceeding about 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,550 degrees Fahrenheit) and blasts of intense radiation.
The spacecraft will have an up-close and personal view of the sun, enabling scientists to better understand and forecast the radiation environment for future space explorers.
‘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? ' said Dick Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington.
'We've been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers'
NASA invited researchers in 2009 to submit science proposals. Thirteen were reviewed by a panel of NASA and outside scientists and the five selected investigations are receiving approximately $180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests.
The Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation will specifically count the most abundant particles in the solar wind - electrons, protons and helium ions - and measure their properties.
The investigation also is designed to catch some of the particles in a special cup for direct analysis.
A telescope on board will make 3-D images of the sun's corona, or atmosphere. The experiment actually will see the solar wind and provide 3-D images of clouds and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft.
Another will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the sun's atmospheric plasma.
The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft's antenna.
Another experiment from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio will look at elements in the sun's atmosphere using a mas spectrometer to weigh and sort ions in the vicinity of the spacecraft.
by "environment clean generations"