Not only is the Parker Solar Probe one of NASA's most ambitious missions, it also seems to defy logic. The spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch this summer, will enter the solar corona and travel through materials with temperatures in excess of one million degrees Fahrenheit. So, why will not it melt?
Illustration of Parker solar probe circling the sun.
NASA has made the science known behind the reason why this space dog will not melt on Thursday in such an extreme environment. To understand why the Parker solar probe does not melt, the space agency explained the key concepts of heat and temperature, the individual heat shield, and the spacecraft's unique innovation.
Parker Solar Probe Temperature vs. Heat
The difference between heat and temperature will help make the Parker Solar Probe mission a little more (but not much more) feasible. Temperature is a measure of how fast particles move, while heat refers to how much of that energy is transferred. In a place that is largely empty like space, high temperature does not always mean high heat. Particles could move quickly and produce high temperatures, but with so few of them, they will not transfer so much heat to the spacecraft.
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Heat shield from Parker Solar Probe
That's still pretty hot. There's nothing to sneer at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and an unmelted Parker Solar Probe could have caused some delays in planning the launch. To withstand the heat, NASA installed a shield known as the Thermal Protection System (TPS).
Designed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, TPS consists of a lightweight carbon foam core flanked by two carbon-carbon composite panels. The sun visor is sprayed with a white coating that reflects as much solar energy as possible from the spacecraft. It is only 4.5 inches thick, and yet it is expected to hold almost all instruments safely.
Parker Solar Probe Measuring Cup
Not every instrument is protected by TPS. The Faraday cup is a sensor that bumps over the heat shield to measure the solar wind, and to get an accurate reading, it could not be protected by TPS.
Why does not Faraday melt? 19659013] "Due to the intensity of the Sun's atmosphere, unique technologies had to be developed to ensure that the instrument not only can survive, but that the electronics on board can provide accurate readings," said Susannah Darling of NASA. The cup is made of sheet titanium-zirconium-molybdenum, an alloy of molybdenum that gives it a melting point of about 4260 degrees Fahrenheit. The chips that create an electric field for the Faraday cup are made of tungsten, the metal with the highest known melting point. With a threshold of 6.192 degrees Fahrenheit before melting, Faraday has the leeway to collect the needed solar wind data.
After launching on August 4, the Parker Sun Probe will use Venus' gravity to reduce its orbit around the Sun. These fly-bys will take about seven years and eventually bring the probe as close as 3.7 million miles from the center of the solar system. His last loop within the solar corona is expected in late 2024. But thanks to this array of innovative technologies, it should stay cool all the time.
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