Tuesday, September 26

Hypervelocity threatens the fastest spacecraft in its exploration of the Sun

Hypervelocity threatens the fastest spacecraft in its exploration of the Sun

Hypervelocity threatens the fastest spacecraft in its exploration of the Sun

A new study by scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Johns Hopkins University explores the dangers of hypervelocity for spacecraft that reach extreme speeds, such as Parker Solar Probe on their journey to reveal the mysteries of the Sun. NASA’s spacecraft is the fastest human-made object ever, but traveling at 180 kilometers per second a tiny grain of space dust can put its structure at risk.

According to a release of the American Physical Society (APS), new research recently presented at a meeting of specialists of APS in Pittsburgh reveals how hypervelocity dust impacts can disrupt spacecraft operations, Parker Solar Probe being the closest and most concrete example.

The dangers of hyper speed

Currently, Parker Solar Probe it makes its way towards the Sun through the densest region of the zodiacal cloud. This structure is a thick cloud of dust that extends throughout the Solar System: it is made up of small grains of dust detached from asteroids and comets. Tiny grains of space dust, about 2 to 20 microns in diameter, hit the spacecraft traveling at hypervelocity, specifically exceeding 640,000 kilometers per hour.

Although at an initial glance it seems that an object at that speed is impregnable, rather the opposite happens. After the impacts, the material that forms the dust grains and the surface of the spacecraft overheat, causing it to vaporize first and then ionize. This process results in the ionized material be transformed into plasma, a state of matter that under these conditions produces dangerous explosions.

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According to the researchers’ conclusions, the impact of space dust and plasma explosions can produce disturbances in the electromagnetic environment around the spaceship, in addition to various damage to its structure. This could literally put a ship like Parker Solar Probe, which travels at incredible speeds towards the meeting with the star king.

Related topic: For the first time we have touched the Sun.Related topic: For the first time we have touched the Sun.

Revealing the mysteries of the Sun

After completing its fifth flyby of Venus in October, the spaceship continues to travel at hypervelocity towards the Sun. With the help of two more flybys of Venus as gravity assists, in August 2023 and November 2024, Parker Solar Probe will finally reach a distance of 6.2 million kilometers from the solar surface in December 2024.

Using its four arrays of onboard instruments, the spacecraft collects data on the solar environment and the solar wind, among other information that will be vital in revealing the riddles about the Sun and its impact on the planets. However, Parker Solar Probe will have to overcome another obstacle in addition to the dangers already known in space travel: the consequences of the hyper speed.

According to the scientists in charge of the new study, the measurements obtained allow us to appreciate how the plasma created after dust impacts is carried by the flow of the solar wind. The new knowledge will have important implications for the Parker Solar Probe safety and the spaceships that arrive in the future. In addition, they will serve to better understand how larger plasma regions, such as those located in the upper atmospheres of Venus and Mars, are blown away by the solar wind.

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Video: NASA Goddard / YouTube.

Photo: Parker Solar Probe is the fastest human-made object, but a tiny grain of space dust could put this spacecraft in a tight spot. Credit: NASA Solar System Exploration.


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