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Home / Science / NASA's solar probe launches this summer: why it will not go down in the heat of the sun

NASA's solar probe launches this summer: why it will not go down in the heat of the sun



NASA's Parker Solar Probe has been designed to withstand the extreme heat and sun temperatures. The spacecraft is scheduled to go into orbit in summer 201

8, providing unprecedented detail about the solar corona. ( Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University )

NASA's Parker solar probe will enter orbit around the Sun this summer, making it the first close observation of a star.

The auto-sized spacecraft will deploy approximately 3.8 million miles from the sun's surface in a region known as the solar corona. This will allow unparalleled details of the solar winds to reach highly charged particles down to Neptune.

At this point it will also be exposed to intense heat and temperature. Temperatures in the corona range from 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to more than a million degrees in some areas.

It has long been believed that nothing can ever fly so close to the sun and does not dissolve in the intense heat and radiation. However, Parker Solar Probe is equipped with basic and advanced technologies to prevent melting in the sun.

Heat Vs. Temperature

It is important to understand that heat differs from temperature. Temperature measures how fast particles move, while heat is an indicator of how much energy is transferred from the particles.

High temperatures do not always mean high energy transfer. The particles can move at extremely high speeds, but they may not be enough of them to transfer energy in the form of heat to another body. In space there are very few particles that can heat a spacecraft.

For an example closer to Earth, putting your hand in a heated oven is much easier than putting it in a pot of boiling water. This is because much less particles move at high speed inside the oven than in a pot of water.

The solar corona can measure up to millions of degrees of temperature, but it does not have enough particles to heat the probe to that level. Outside the heat shield, the temperature will only be 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat Shield

To further reduce heat, the Parker solar probe is embedded in a 4.5-inch layer of carbon composite foam sandwiched between carbon plates. On the sun-facing side, the sign is painted in layers of white ceramic paint to bounce off as much light as possible from the sun.

The heat shield can hold up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and keep the temperature within the probe down to a manageable 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, not all instruments are protected by the heat shield. A Faraday cup, a tool designed to measure the ion and electron flux in solar winds, will stick out from the heat shield like a sore thumb.

To keep it from melting in the sun, the mug was made of molybdenum alloy, which can endure up to 4,260 degrees Fahrenheit. The chips used for the cup were made from tungsten, a metal with the highest melting point known to man at 6.192 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tried and tested in a laboratory

To make sure that the Faraday cup of the heat of the NASA underwent the sun under similar conditions as in orbit.

Using a particle accelerator, scientists bombarded the cup with radiation and IMAX projectors to simulate solar heat. They also used the solar oven by Odello, which bundles the heat of the sun through 10,000 mirrors.

The result? The Faraday cup from Parker Solar Probe was easily able to withstand heat, temperature, light and radiation. The more the cup was exposed to the elements, the better it worked.

"We believe the radiation has eliminated any potential contamination," says Justin Kasper, Principal Investigator for the SWEAP Instruments at the University of Michigan. "It basically cleaned itself."

Autonomous Cooling System

NASA has equipped the spacecraft with solar cells that can harness the sun's energy. As the spacecraft approaches the sun, the solar panels retract under the shadow of the heat shield, leaving only a small portion of it open.

The probe is also equipped with a deceptively simple cooling system that can easily cool a living room. The system includes a heated tank and two coolers to prevent freezing of the coolant, aluminum fins and pumps to keep the coolant fluid.

The coolant consists of pressurized, deionized water with a boiling point in excess of 257 degrees Fahrenheit. The balance between the heating and pumping elements keeps the water hot enough to keep it from freezing and cool enough to prevent overcooking.

Sensors placed in the shadow of the heat shield were also placed to detect sunlight. When the sensors detect light, they notify the main computer, which then repositions the probe to keep it away from the light.

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