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It’s been a busy week for the folks manning the controls of the Sun-touching Parker Solar Probe at NASA. After breaking a bunch of records last week for its distance from the Sun and the speed at which it was traveling, the probe began the week by making the first of its two dozen planned flybys of the star.
Now, after waiting patiently for the probe to complete its pass and gather whatever data it could, NASA is reporting that the probe phoned home to let its engineers know that it’s doing just fine. This was the first big test for the probe and its suite of self-managing safety features, and it looks like everything is working as intended.
“Parker Solar Probe was designed to take care of itself and its precious payload during this close approach, with no control from us on Earth — and now we know it succeeded,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “Parker is the culmination of six decades of scientific progress. Now, we have realized humanity’s first close visit to our star, which will have implications not just here on Earth, but for a deeper understanding of our universe.”
NASA knows what kind of intense environment the probe has to deal with as it cruises around the Sun, and it has designed it to be able to withstand incredible temperatures. The spacecraft is equipped with a thick heat shield that protects the instrument-loaded backside of the probe, but it can only do its job if it’s pointed in the right direction. To ensure the shield remains at the correct angle, a series of sensors positioned around the edges of the probe automatically keep it in the correct orientation.
For its first pass, NASA says the probe experienced temperatures around 820 degrees Fahrenheit. That might sound insane, but it’s nothing compared to the 2,500-degree temperatures it will be faced with when it makes its closest passes of the star over the next half decade or so. Those temperatures are blocked by the heat shield, while the rest of the probe remains in the “mid-80s F,” according to NASA.
Modern air travel is fast, but it could be a lot faster. As the Concorde demonstrated, supersonic air travel is totally doable but comes with a lot of compromises. One of those compromises has always been sound. When a jet passes the sound barrier it creates a deafening blast that shakes the ground beneath, but NASA is working hard to fix that.
NASA believes it has the technology to create what it calls “quiet sonic booms” that allow aircraft to break the sound barrier without producing the intense clap that normally follows. The administration chose Texas as its testing grounds and just began performing test flights this week.
NASA isn’t quite ready to test its own actual quiet sonic booms yet, so this first round of testing will actually be performed by an F/A-18 research jet that will dive towards land and produce a boom that will be pretty quiet once it arrives. This “unique maneuver,” as NASA describes it, is only meant to test how people and ground sensors hear the blast from above, which will help in determining how quiet a sonic boom as to be in order to be acceptable.
Residents near the testing grounds in Galveston will be surveyed for their feedback, describing the sounds they hear so that NASA knows how much of a nuisance the quieter booms are. Then, when NASA is ready to test the actual quiet sonic boom technology they’ll have something to compare it to.
Those later tests, which will be performed with test aircraft equipped with X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology (or QueSST for short), are expected to get underway sometime around 2022.
It’s been a busy month for the Parker Solar Probe which, if you haven’t been keeping track, is currently moving faster than any man-made object ever and also closer to the sun than anything humans have ever built. The spacecraft launched a couple of months back, but it’s finally ready to do some science, and it just made it first close pass by our Sun, which is obviously cause for celebration.
The probe, which will make dozens of passes of the star, achieved its closest distance of this particular loop (called “perihelion”) on Monday night. Now, its handlers back on Earth are eagerly awaiting word from the craft so that it can share whatever information it has gathered.
As Space.com explains, the probe is actually designed to lose contact with Earth while it’s in close proximity to the Sun. It does this because the Sun’s habit of interfering with communication between spacecraft and Earth. So, the probe makes its pass, does its thing, and its science team sits and waits for it to send word back, which really must be an excruciating time.
The probe is well equipped to handle its duties without input from its engineers. It’s equipped with an incredible heat shield that will protect it from the intense heat of the Sun, and it has sensors and orientation systems that ensure that the heat shield is always pointed in the correct direction as it makes its way around the star.
This first pass is a great test for the probe, but it’s also only the tip of the iceberg for NASA. The spacecraft is currently slated to perform a whopping 24 individual passes, creeping closer and closer over time to gather more and more data.
It’ll still be a while before the probe actually sends back any information, however. Sending a constant stream of information back is taxing on any space hardware, so scientists receive the data in large download dumps at specific times. The first of those data dumps will happen sometime in early December, if everything goes according to plan.