The Parker Solar Probe

Post by Nic Quattromani:

Well, here’s an interesting bit of space news: the Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch tomorrow, on August 11. Thus our brave little space probe shall begin its journey to the hottest place within light-years of here. You see, while previous solar observation probes like Ulysses have been content to observe from a distance, this one makes the others look like total pansies, and will dive directly into the sun’s corona for the greater glory of science. In doing so it will pass within a tenth of Mercury’s orbit and at perihelion reach a dizzying 700,000 kilometers per hour, becoming the fastest man-made object in history.

Because the regular space environment isn’t hostile enough.

How does it do this, you might ask? It’s not just that iron force of will is hard-coded into the Solar Probe’s processor chips—it also carries an eleven-centimeter-thick carbon composite shield, a parasol scaled to epic proportions, which will protect the fragile craft behind and keep much of its instrumentation operating near room temperature. According to NASA the ambient environment will exceed 1,377 degrees Celsius. Now, temperature in deep space is always an iffy business—in a perfect vacuum, there is no ambient temperature, there’s just a balance between radiation absorbed by an object and radiation emitted, and up to a certain point radiation remains more significant than convection. Diffuse 1,377-degree plasma won’t have the same effect as 1,377-degree Earth air. Nevertheless, the Parker Solar Probe isn’t quite operating in a shirtsleeves environment.

And the probe isn’t diving into a hellish environment just to push the limits of technology, though I maintain that would be a valid justification in itself. In scientific terms, this mission promises to give us fresh, up-close data on the star we can most readily study, and it may also give us advance warning for solar storms, or at least teach us more about how they form. The secrets of high-temperature plasma dynamics and the nuances of the solar wind will be ours to unlock. While the engineering is unprecedented, the benefits are myriad. I, personally, am looking forward to watching the probe take flight two days from now, and seeing what secrets it unlocks in the fiery globe of our nearest stellar neighbor.



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