Solar power

The Column

The Column, The Column-11-19-2010, Volume 6, Issue 21

Researchers at NASA?s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, USA, are using their Solar Thermal Test Facility to expose a unique mass spectrometer to the extreme conditions that it will face on a mission to Mercury.

Researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, USA, are using their Solar Thermal Test Facility to expose a unique mass spectrometer to the extreme conditions that it will face on a mission to Mercury.

Strofio is a mass spectrometer that will form part of the SERENA instrument package to analyse the planet Mercury’s surface and gain new insight into its geological history. When Strofio reaches Mercury, the Sun will expose it to 14  700 watts per square metre of solar energy, reaching temperatures of 120 ˚C on the sunny side and the freezing temperatures of space on the other.

To test the thermal balance of the device before launch, researchers will simulate this mix of temperatures using the Solar Thermal Test Facility’s two-story tall curved mirror. The mirror is made of 144 smaller segments and is capable of generating 1  000  000 watts per square metre of solar energy intensity at its focal point. For the conditions Strofio will face, the facility will only need to partially uncover 26 segments. The light will then be focused onto a small vacuum chamber, which contains a liquid nitrogen shroud that mimics the freezing temperatures of deep space.

Once testing is complete the mass spectrometer will fly on board ESA’s 2014 Mercury Planetary Orbiter mission.

This story originally appeared in The Column. Click here to view that issue.