For the past 30 years, NASA scientists have been trying get close to the sun. Dangerously close. Finally (with the help of congress), plans to launch the Solar Probe mission in 2015 are underway.
The mission will fly within 4.3 million miles of the sun, through its corona or atmosphere, one of the last unexplored regions of the solar system. The corona is several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and how it's heated remains a mystery. Scientists hope the Solar Probe will provide some answers. In addition, the probe will study how solar wind is accelerated, by studying the rapid flow of particles it continuously blasts into space.
If being barraged by radiation and immensely hot temperatures doesn't sound fun to you, it's probably not fun for most astronauts either. Researchers are designing a carbon composite heat shield that will be able to protect the 992 pound spacecraft from 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures.
The Solar Probe will collect data useful to scientists for analyzing space radiation, and how damaging this environment might be for future explorers. Dangerous levels of radiation have always posed a threat to astronauts- once they are beyond the protective shield of the earth's magnetic core the risk of human cell damage and even death is much greater. The more scientists can learn about solar radiation, the safer future space missions will be, and the Solar Probe is the first step towards that goal.