Sending a spacecraft near the sun poses some problems. Some are obvious (it’s 2500+ degrees up there!); some are less so (“hypervelocity dust particles“). Which is probably why it’s never been done before — until now, at least.

A team of ridiculously smart scientists from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory is working with NASA on the the first-ever Solar Probe Plus, “an extraordinary mission of exploration, discovery and deep understanding.” If all goes according to plan, the craft will get as close to the sun as possible — that is, 4 million miles away — and investigate some of the crucial questions that have bedeviled sun scientists for years:  “Why is the sun’s outer atmosphere so much hotter than the sun’s visible surface, and What accelerates the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system?”

This will involve badass science work like taking images of solar winds, measuring the shock waves that course through the star’s atmospheric plasma, and seeing if any friendly aliens live up there.

The launch isn’t slated until 2018, but there are an awful lot of questions the scientists have to answer before then. Will the carbon-composite sheild be able to handle that kind of heat? And how will the craft’s parts cope with all that space dust? Apparently, tests are moving in the right direction; the project just moved from Phase A to Phase B. Good luck, scientists, and godspeed.