New discovery: the impact of hypervelocity dust on spacecraft will produce plasma explosion and debris cloud

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bcdb57055d67c34 - New discovery: the impact of hypervelocity dust on spacecraft will produce plasma explosion and debris cloud

Laboratory of atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder and Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University A new study by scientists examined the collision between the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft and dust. Under the leadership of LASP researcher and assistant professor David Malaspina of the Department of Astrophysics and Planetary Science of the University of Colorado, the team used the electromagnetic and optical observation data of the Parker solar probe to produce the most complete picture so far on the possibility that hypervelocity dust impact may damage the spacecraft and interfere with its operation

the Parker solar probe passes through perihelion space at a speed of 180 kilometers per second (about 400000 miles per hour) and through the area with the most dense ecliptic clouds. The ecliptic cloud is a thick, pancake shaped dust cloud that extends to the entire solar system and is composed of small dust particles shed by asteroids and comets. When the Parker solar probe passed this area, thousands of tiny dust particles (about 2 to 20 microns in diameter, or less than a quarter of the width of human hair) hit the spacecraft at ultra-high speed (more than 6700 miles per hour). After impact, the materials that make up the dust particles and the spacecraft surface are heated so that it is first evaporated and then ionized. Ionization is a process in which atoms in vaporized materials are separated into their constituent ions and electrons to produce a state of matter called plasma. Rapid vaporization and ionization produced a plasma explosion lasting less than one thousandth of a second. These largest impacts also produce debris clouds that slowly spread from the spacecraft

in the new study, Malaspina and her colleagues used antennas and magnetic field sensors to measure the interference of dust impact plasma explosion on the electromagnetic environment around the spacecraft (as shown in the figure). These findings may lead to a new understanding of space weather around the sun. For example, these measurements enable the research team to study how these plasma explosions interact with the solar wind, or the continuous flow of ions and electrons generated by the sun

“through these measurements, we can observe that the plasma produced by these dust impacts is swept away by the flow of the solar wind,” maraspina said. He added that learning how this “pickup” process works on a small scale may help scientists better understand how larger plasma regions, such as the plasma in the upper atmosphere of Venus and Mars, are swept away by the solar wind

these findings also have a significant impact on the safety of the Parker solar probe and subsequent spacecraft

the research team observed how the metal and paint fragments scattered during the collision with dust drifted and rolled around the spacecraft. These fragments produced stripes in the images taken by the navigation and science camera on the Parker solar probe

Kaushik Iyer of APL, co-author of the research report, said: “many image stripes look radial and originate near the heat shield,” referring to the large heat shield that protects the Parker solar detector from the strong heat near the sun. The study also reported that some debris scattered sunlight into the navigation camera of the Parker solar probe, making it temporarily impossible for the spacecraft to determine its direction in space. This may be a dangerous prospect for a spacecraft that survives by pointing accurately to its thermal shield

the Parker solar probe was launched in 2018 and has completed nine complete solar orbits. Before its main mission ends in 2025, it will complete another 15 orbits

as the Parker Solar Probe continues its journey around the sun, it can now add another record to its long list: the spacecraft that encountered the most particles

the results of this study will be announced at the 63rd annual meeting of APS Plasma Physics Division on November 11, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania