Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

Kepler Planet Hunter Nears End of Epic Journey

The Kepler spacecraft is in the final moments of its life. NASA isn’t quite sure when they’ll say their last goodbye to the space telescope which has confirmed the existence of thousands of exoplanets since its launch in 2009, but most estimates give it a few months at best. The prognosis is simple: she’s out of gas. Without propellant for its thrusters, Kepler can’t orient itself, and that means it can’t point its antenna to Earth to communicate.

Now far as spacecraft failures go, propellant depletion isn’t exactly unexpected. After all, it can’t pull into the nearest service station to top off the tanks. What makes the fact that Kepler will finally have to cease operations for such a mundane reason interesting is that the roughly $600 million dollar space telescope has already “died” once before. Back in 2013, NASA announced Kepler was irreparably damaged following a series of critical system failures that had started the previous year.

But thanks to what was perhaps some of the best last-ditch effort hacking NASA has done since they brought the crew of Apollo 13 home safely, a novel way of getting the spacecraft back under control was implemented. While it was never quite the same, Kepler was able to continue on with modified mission parameters and to date has delivered so much raw data that scientists will be analyzing it for years to come. Not bad for a dead bird.

Before Kepler goes dark for good, let’s take a look at how NASA managed to resurrect this planet hunting space telescope and greatly expand our knowledge of the planets in our galaxy.

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Joan Feynman Found Her Place in the Sun

Google ‘Joan Feynman’ and you can feel the search behemoth consider asking for clarification. Did you mean: Richard Feynman? Image search is even more biased toward Richard. After maybe seven pictures of Joan, there’s an endless scroll of Richard alone, Richard playing the bongos, Richard with Arline, the love of his life.

Yes, Joan was overshadowed by her older brother, but what physicist of the era wasn’t? Richard didn’t do it on purpose. In fact, no one supported Joan’s scientific dreams more than he did, not even their mother. Before Richard ever illuminated the world with his brilliance, he shined a light on his little sister, Joan.

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