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The Secret Behind NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 12, will transmit its first scientific observations in December.

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Why won't NASA's Parker Solar Probe melt?
Why won't NASA's Parker Solar Probe melt?VOA

With NASA launching a historic Parker Solar Probe deeper into the solar atmosphere than any mission before it, a moot question arises: Why won’t it melt?

Inside the solar atmosphere — a region known as the corona — the probe will provide observations of what drives the wide range of particles, energy and heat that course through the region.

The spacecraft will travel through material with temperatures greater than several million degrees Celsius while being bombarded with intense sunlight.

According to the US space agency, Parker Solar Probe has been designed to withstand the extreme conditions and temperature fluctuations for the mission.

“The key lies in its custom heat shield and an autonomous system that helps protect the mission from the Sun’s intense light emission, but does allow the coronal material to ‘touch’ the spacecraft,” NASA said in a statement.

Parker solar probe
The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. IANS

While the Parker Solar Probe will travel through a space with temperatures of several million degrees, the surface of the heat shield that faces the Sun will only get heated to about 1,400 degree Celsius.

This is because “in space, the temperature can be thousands of degrees without providing significant heat to a given object or feeling hot. Since space is mostly empty, there are very few particles that can transfer energy to the spacecraft”.

The corona through which the Parker Solar Probe flies, for example, has an extremely high temperature but very low density.

The probe makes use of a heat shield known as the Thermal Protection System, or TPS, which is eight feet in diameter and 4.5 inches thick.

Those few inches of protection mean that just on the other side of the shield, the spacecraft body will sit at a comfortable 30 degrees Celsius.

Parker-Solar-2, NASA
The Parker Solar Probe sits in a clean room at Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., after the installation of its heat shield. VOA

The TPS was designed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and was built at Carbon-Carbon Advanced Technologies, using a carbon composite foam sandwiched between two carbon plates.

This lightweight insulation will be accompanied by a finishing touch of white ceramic paint on the sun-facing plate, to reflect as much heat as possible.

“Tested to withstand up to 1,650 degrees Celsius, the TPS can handle any heat the Sun can send its way, keeping almost all instrumentation safe,” said NASA.

Another challenge came in the form of the electronic wiring — most cables would melt from exposure to heat radiation at such close proximity to the Sun.

To solve this problem, the team grew sapphire crystal tubes to suspend the wiring, and made the wires from the chemical element niobium.

NASA
Several other designs on the spacecraft keep Parker Solar Probe sheltered from the heat.Flickr

Several other designs on the spacecraft keep Parker Solar Probe sheltered from the heat.

Without protection, the solar panels — which use energy from the very star being studied to power the spacecraft — can overheat.

At each approach to the Sun, the solar arrays retract behind the heat shield’s shadow, leaving only a small segment exposed to the Sun’s intense rays.

Also Read: Red-hot Voyage to Sun Will Bring us Closer to our Star

The solar arrays have a surprisingly simple cooling system: a heated tank that keeps the coolant from freezing during launch, two radiators that will keep the coolant from freezing, aluminium fins to maximise the cooling surface, and pumps to circulate the coolant.

The spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on August 12, will transmit its first scientific observations in December. (IANS)

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Anticipated Problems That May Effect NASA’s Mars Mission

According to results from the first eight analog space crews, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the astronauts are able to successfully complete tasks between 20 and 60 per cent of the time.

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NASA has formalised plans to send a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could involve 250 million miles of travel on a small spacecraft.  Pixabay

Researchers are developing a predictive model to help NASA anticipate conflicts and communication breakdowns among crew members and tick off problems that may make or break the Mission to Mars.

NASA has formalised plans to send a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could involve 250 million miles of travel on a small spacecraft.

To understand the psychological demands of this Mars journey, Northwestern University has charted a multi-phase study conducted in two analog environments — HERA in the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS Mission in the NEK analog located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia.

The varsity will study the behaviour of analog astronaut crews on mock missions, complete with isolation, sleep deprivation, specially designed tasks and mission control, which mimics real space travel with delayed communication.

Mars
NASA has formalised plans to send a manned mission to Mars, a journey that could involve 250 million miles of travel on a small spacecraft. 
Pixabay

“Astronauts are super humans. They are people who are incredibly physically fit and extremely smart,” said Leslie DeChurch, Professor at Northwestern.

“We’re taking an already state-of-the-art crew selection system and making it even better by finding the values, traits and other characteristics that will allow NASA to compose crews that will get along,” DeChurch added.

HERA’s capsule simulator houses astronauts for up to 45 days — a mock mission control outside the capsule — that augments the realism with sound effects, vibrations and communication delays.

space
According to results from the first eight analog space crews, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the astronauts are able to successfully complete tasks between 20 and 60 per cent of the time. Pixabay

Those on the inside undergo sleep deprivation and try to perform tasks. The researchers collect moment-to-moment metrics about individual performance, moods, psychosocial adaptation and more.

According to results from the first eight analog space crews, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the astronauts are able to successfully complete tasks between 20 and 60 per cent of the time.

Also Read: Iran Doubts Europe’s Efforts To Keep Nuclear Deal Alive

The next phase of the research, which began on February 15, involves using the model to predict breakdowns and problems a new HERA crew will experience and making changes to “who works with whom, on what, and when”.

The experiment on the SIRIUS analog in Moscow, will begin on March 15, where four Russians and two Americans, will undertake a 120-day fictional mission around the moon, including a moon landing operation. (IANS)