The Parker solar probe is bombarded with hyperspeed dust. Could they damage the spaceships? – .

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The Parker solar probe is bombarded with hyperspeed dust. Could they damage the spaceships? – .


There’s one pretty big downside to going really fast – if you get hit by something, even if it’s small, it can hurt. So when the fastest man-made object ever – the Parker Solar Probe – is hit by specks of dust a fraction of the size of a human hair, they still cause damage. The question is how much damage, and could we potentially learn something from how exactly this damage occurs? According to new research from scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB), the answer to the second question is yes, we actually can.

Parker navigates through the inner solar system on its orbit around the Sun at a cool speed of 180 km / s (400,000 mph). But the environment in which it travels is anything but cold – the probe needs the help of a giant heat shield to ensure that all of a star’s strength doesn’t completely destroy its innards. This heat shield does not always face the direction the craft is traveling, so it cannot permanently protect the sensitive interior of the body from dust impacts, some of which can occur at an astonishing speed of 10,800 km. / h (6,700 mph).

UT video discussing the Parker mission

So what happens when this dust hits the spaceship? Usually the grains vaporize first and then ionize, which separates the ions and electrons that make up the atoms of the grain, resulting in a plasma. These plasmas themselves create a tiny explosion that only lasts a thousandth of a second. Larger grains, however, can actually create debris. Some of this debris is vaporized dust, but some could be small parts of Parker itself washed away by the speck of dust.

There is another consequence of these impacts that are not as visible to the naked eye: they disturb the electromagnetic field around the probe. This disturbance is what Dr David Malaspin of UCB’s Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory uses to better understand Parker’s local environment.

NASA video describing Parker’s heat shield.

Since it is closer to the Sun than any other man-made object, Parker is constantly bathed in the solar wind – a flow of plasma that emanates from the Sun. Plasma is made up of electrically charged ions and electrons, so it is also associated with a magnetic field. Any other plasma introduced, such as that resulting from dust collisions with Parker, would impact this magnetic field.

Parker has its own suite of magnetically sensitive instruments to enable it to monitor the Sun’s magnetic field. But they are also useful in detecting how the plasma created by Parker collisions with dust is swept away by the solar wind. While this data helps understand some of the environmental conditions of the “zodiac cloud” – a large dust cloud located near the Sun – it could also be useful in understanding how small-scale ionization processes interact with the solar wind. This can be particularly useful for modeling the interaction of the atmosphere of Venus or Mars with the solar wind.

Scott Manley explores the early results of Parker’s mission.

As part of this magnetic study, the researchers also examined some of the debris that had been ejected from the probe itself. In some cases, the debris moved into less than ideal positions, such as right in front of a navigation camera, causing a trail to reflect in the image or sunlight and briefly disorienting the probe. For a mission like Parker, which must be constantly vigilant about its orientation lest it be burned out by the Sun, such disorientation could end the entire mission.

For now, Parker has a lot more to do. Its main task runs until 2025, with fifteen more orbits around the Sun planned in addition to the nine it has already completed since its launch in 2018. Hopefully it can remain operational for the next four years while retaining the title. . of the “sandiest spaceship” in addition to its other accolades.

Learn more:
UC Boulder – Tiny grains, severe damage: Research conducted by LASP shows how hyperspeed dust impacts can damage a spacecraft and disrupt its operations
APS – Rapid Plasma Explosions and Persistent Debris Clouds Driven by High Velocity Dust Impacts on Parker Solar Probe: An Unintentional Active Experiment in the Internal Heliosphere
Space.com – Hyperspeed dust impacts cause plasma explosions on Parker Solar Probe
SciTechDaily – Hyperspeed dust impacts on a spacecraft produce plasma explosions and clouds of debris

Main picture:
Artist’s impression of Parker with graphics and images associated with the study.
Credit – NASA / JHUAPL / LASP

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