NASA Probes Gather Solar Information

STEREO observatories and Solar Probe
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Laurel, MD

NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) is comprised of two nearly identical spacecraft that were launched in 2006. They will gather images of the Sun simultaneously from different angles. These images will then be combined to produce three-dimensional pictures of coronal mass ejections. These eruptions can blow 10 billion tons of the Sun’s atmosphere into space, and can trigger severe magnetic storms on Earth that cut off electric power and communications.

ImageThe STEREO observatories were designed and built for NASA by Johns Hopkins APL. Critical devices in the design include star trackers that use computers and star maps to determine the orientation and pointing accuracy of onboard instruments. Key devices are thermally isolated from each other by spacers made of a special glass epoxy composite, which maintains sufficient strength and insulation properties even when temperatures plunge to absolute zero.

NASA has also tapped APL to develop the Solar Probe mission, which will study the streams of charged particles the Sun hurls into space from a vantage point within the Sun’s corona, where the processes that heat the corona and produce solar wind occur. The compact, solar-powered probe would weigh about 1,000 pounds and would employ a combination of inplace and remote measurements. The Solar Probe would travel past the Sun at 125 miles per second, protected by a carboncomposite heat shield that must withstand up to 2,600°F. APL will design and build the spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2015.

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