Addendum, Cars, physics, Space, thought experiment

Addendum: A City On Wheels

While I was proofreading my City on Wheels post, I realized that I’d missed a golden opportunity to estimate just how heavy a whole city would be. When I was writing that post, I wanted to use the Empire State Building’s weight as an upper limit, because I was pretty sure that would be enough space for a whole self-sufficient community. Trouble is, the weight of buildings isn’t usually known. The Empire State Building’s weight is cited here and there, but never with a very convincing source. I couldn’t figure out a way to estimate its weight that didn’t feel like nonsense guesswork. That’s why I used the Titanic’s displacement as my baseline.

The reason estimating the mass of a building was so tricky is that, generally, buildings are far form standardized. Yeah, a lot of houses are built in similar or identical styles, but even if you know their exact dimensions, converting that into a reasonably accurate weight turns into pure guesswork, because you don’t know what kind of wood was used in the frame, how much moisture the wood contained, how many total nails were used, et cetera. But, just now, I realized something. There is a standardized object that represents the shape, size, and weight of a dwelling pretty well: the humble shipping container.

31-shipping-container-house-01-850x566

You may notice that that’s not a shipping container. It’s a bunch of shipping containers put together to make a rather stylish (if slightly industrial-looking) house. Building homes out of shipping containers is a big movement in the United States right now. They’re cheaper than a lot of alternatives, and they’re tough: shipping containers are built to be stacked high, even while carrying full loads. For example:

cscl_globe_arriving_at_felixstowe_united_kingdom

The things are sturdy enough that they far exceed most building codes, when properly anchored. Their low price, their strength, and the fact that they’re easily combined and modified, has made them popular as alternative houses.

Because different shipping containers from different manufacturers and different countries often end up stacked together, they all have to be built to the same standard. Their dimensions, therefore, are standardized, which is good news for us. I re-imagined the rolling city as a stack of shipping containers approximately the size of the Titanic, with their long axes perpendicular to the ship’s long axis. You could fit two across the Titanic‘s deck this way, and 110 along the deck, and if you stacked them 20 high, you’d approximate the Titanic’s shape and volume. To account for the fact that the people living in these containers are going to have furniture, pets, physical bodies, and other inconvenient stuff, I’ll assume that each container would have twelve pieces of the heaviest furniture I could think of: the refrigerator.

Amazon is a great thing for this kind of estimation, because from it, I learned that an ordinary Frigidaire is about 300 pounds. Multiply that by twelve, add the mass of the container itself (3.8 metric tons each), round up (to keep estimates pessimistic), and you get 6 metric tons per container. Considering that a standard 40-foot intermodal container (which is the standard I worked with) can handle a gross weight (container + cargo) of over 28 metric tons, we’re nowhere near the load limit for the containers. There are 4,400 containers in all, for a total mass of 26,400 metric tons. Increase the mass by 25% to account for the weight of the nuclear reactor, chassis, and suspension, and we get 33,000 metric tons. That’s still a hell of a lot, but it’s only just over half of the 50,000 tonnes we were working with before.

As you might remember, I wrote off the Titanic-based city on wheels as probably feasible, but requiring a heroic effort and investment. But using the shipping container mass, which is 1.5-fold smaller, I think it moves into the “impressive but almost sensible mega-project” category, along with the Golden Gate Bridge, the Burj Khalifa, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Infinite Jest.

Another note: There’s one heavy, mobile object whose weight I didn’t mention in the City on Wheels post: the Saturn V rocket. I did mention the Crawler-Transporter that moved the Saturn V from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpad, however. And the weight of the fully-loaded Saturn V gives us an idea of how massive an object a self-propelled machine can move: 3,000 tonnes. Because, to nobody’s surprise, NASA knows the weight of every Apollo rocket at liftoff. Because it’s mildly (massively) important to know the mass of the rocket you’re launching, because that can make the difference between “rocket in a low orbit” and “really dangerous and expensive airplane flying really high until it explodes with three astronauts inside.”

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physics, Space, thought experiment

The Moon Cable

It was my cousin’s birthday. In his honor, we were having lunch at a slightly seedy Mexican restaurant. Half of the people were having a weird discussion about religion. The other half were busy getting drunk on fluorescent mango margaritas. As usual, me and one of my other cousins (let’s call him Neil) were talking absolute nonsense to entertain ourselves.

“So I’ve got a question,” Neil said, knowing my penchant for ridiculous thought experiments, “Would it be physically possible to tie the Earth and Moon together with a cable?” I was distracted by the fact that the ventilation duct was starting to drip in my camarones con arroz, so I didn’t give the matter as much thought as I should have, and I babbled some stuff I read about space elevators until Neil changed the subject. But, because I am an obsessive lunatic, the question has stuck with me.

The first question is how much cable we’re going to need. Since the Earth and Moon are separated, on average, by 384,399 kilometers, the answer is likely to be “a lot.”

It turns out that this isn’t very hard to calculate. Since cable (or wire rope, as the more formal people call it) is such a common and important commodity,  companies like Wirerope Works, Inc. provide their customers (and idiots like me) with pretty detailed specifications for their products. Let’s use two-inch-diameter cable, since we’re dealing with a pretty heavy load here. Every foot of this two-inch cable weighs 6.85 pounds (3.107 kilograms; I’ve noticed that traditional industries like cabling and car-making are stubborn about going metric). That does not bode well for the feasibility of our cable, but let’s give it a shot anyway.

Much to my surprise, we wouldn’t have to dig up all of North America to get the iron for our mega-cable. It would have a mass of 3,919,000,000 kilograms. I mean, 3.918 billion is hardly nothing. I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat 3.919 billion grains of rice. But when you consider that we’re tying two celestial bodies together with a cable, it seems weird that that cable would weigh less than the Great Pyramid of Giza. But it would.

So we could make the cable. And we could probably devise a horrifying bucket-brigade rocket system to haul it into space. But once we got it tied to the Moon, would it hold?

No. No it would not. Not even close.

The first of our (many) problems is that 384,399 kilometers is the Moon’s semimajor axis. Its orbit, however, is elliptical. It gets as close as 362,600 kilometers (its perigee, which is when supermoons happen) and as far away as 405,400 kilometers. If we were silly enough to anchor the cable when the Moon was at perigee (and since we’re tying planets together, there’s pretty much no limit to the silliness), then it would have to stretch by 10%. For many elastic fibers, there’s a specific yield strength: if you try to stretch it further than its limit, it’ll keep stretching without springing back, like a piece of taffy. Steel is a little better-behaved, and doesn’t have a true yield strength. However, as a reference point, engineers say that the tension that causes a piece of steel to increase in length by 0.2% is its yield strength. To put it more clearly: the cable’s gonna snap.

Of course, we could easily get around this problem by just making the cable 405,400 kilometers long instead of 384,399. But we’re very quickly going to run into another problem. The Moon orbits the Earth once every 27.3 days. The Earth, however, revolves on its axis in just under 24 hours. Long before the cable stretches to its maximum length, it’s going to start winding around the Earth’s equator like a yo-yo string until one of two things happens: 1) So much cable is wound around the Earth that, when the moon his apogee, it snaps the cable; or 2) The pull of all that wrapped-up cable slows the Earth’s rotation so that it’s synchronous with the Moon’s orbit.

In the second scenario, the Moon has to brake the Earth’s rotation within less than 24 hours, because after just over 24 hours, the cable will have wound around the Earth’s circumference once, which just so happens to correspond to the difference in distance between the Moon’s apogee and perigee. Any more than one full revolution, and the cable’s gonna snap no matter what. But hell, physics can be weird. Maybe a steel cable can stop a spinning planet.

Turns out there’s a handy formula. Torque is equal to angular acceleration times moment of inertia. (Moment of inertia tells you how hard an object is to set spinning around a particular axis.) To slow the earth’s spin period from one day to 27.3 days over the course of 24 hours requires a torque of 7.906e28 Newton-meters. For perspective: to apply that much torque with ordinary passenger-car engines would require more engines than there are stars in the Milky Way. Not looking good for our cable, but let’s at least finish the math. Since that torque’s being applied to a lever-arm (the Earth’s radius) with a length of 6,371 kilometers, the force on the cable will be 1.241e22 Newtons. That much force, applied over the piddling cross-sectional area of a two-inch cable, results in a stress of 153 quadrillion megapascals. That’s 42 trillion times the yield strength of Kevlar, which is among the strongest tensile materials we have. And don’t even think about telling me “what about nanotubes?” A high-strength aramid like Kevlar is 42 trillion times too weak. I don’t think even high-grade nanotubes are thirteen orders of magnitude stronger than Kevlar.

So, to very belatedly answer Neil’s question: no. You cannot connect the Earth and Moon with a cable. And now I have to go and return all this wire rope and get him a new birthday present.

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Cars, physics, thought experiment

A City on Wheels

Writing this blog, I find myself talking a lot about my weird little obsessions. I have a lot of them. If they were of a more practical bent, maybe I could’ve been a great composer or an architect, or the guy who invented Cards Against Humanity. But no, I end up wondering more abstract stuff, like how tall a mountain can get, or what it would take to centrifuge someone to death. While I was doing research for my post about hooking a cargo-ship diesel to my car, another old obsession came bubbling up: the idea of a town on wheels.

I’ve already done a few back-of-the-envelope numbers for this post, and the results are less than encouraging. But hey, even if it’s not actually doable, I get to talk about gigantic engines and huge wheels, and show you pictures of cool-looking mining equipment. Because I am, in my soul, still a ten-year-old playing with Tonka trucks in a mud puddle.

The Wheels

Here’s a picture of one of the world’s largest dump trucks:

liebherr_t282_1

That is a Liebherr T 282B. (Have you noticed that all the really cool machines have really boring names?) Anyway, the Liebherr is among the largest trucks in the world. It can carry 360 metric tons. It was only recently outdone by the BelAZ 75710 (see what I mean about the names?), which can carry 450 metric tons. Although it doesn’t look as immediately impressive and imposing as the BelAZ or the Caterpillar 797F, it’s got one really cool thing going for it: it’s kind of the Prius of mining trucks. That is to say, it’s almost a hybrid.

I say almost because it doesn’t (as far as I know) have regenerative braking or a big battery bank for storing power. But those gigantic wheels in the back? They’re not driven by a big beefy mechanical drivetrain like you find in an ordinary car or in a Caterpillar 797F. They’re driven by electric motors so big you could put a blanket in one and call it a Japanese hotel room. The power to drive them comes from a 3,600-horsepower Detroit Diesel, which runs an oversized alternator. (For the record, the BelAZ 75710 uses the same setup.)

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biology, Dragons, thought experiment

Even More Dragonfire

Because I like dragons and I can’t help myself. Don’t worry. This one won’t be nearly as long as my usual posts about dragons. If anything, it’s more to show the thought process that goes into my thought experiments.

Let’s dispense with the notion of dragonfire hotter than the surface of the sun, and with biologically-produced antimatter. Let’s pretend that dragons are made of fairly ordinary flesh. They breathe fire from their mouths (naturally), so they’re going to have to be careful not to burn their tongues off. Let’s assume they have funny saliva glands that mist their mucous membranes to stop them getting scalded off by direct contact with hot air and fire. There’s still thermal radiation to deal with.

According to NOAA (who usually talk about weather, but have, in this case, started talking about fire), exposure to thermal radiation at an intensity of 10 kilowatts per square meter will cause severe pain after 5 seconds and second-degree burns (nasty blisters) after 14 seconds. With that in mind, I want to find out how hot dragonfire can be before its thermal radiation is too much for a dragon’s mouth to handle.

Well, let’s assume a dragon’s mouth is a cylinder 1 meter long and 30 centimeters in diameter. Multiply the circumference of that cylinder by its length to get its surface area (minus the ends), and then multiply the area by 10 kilowatts per square meter to get the maximum radiant power that can reach the mucous membranes. The result: 9.425 kilowatts. Now, let’s model the jet of fire as a cylinder (again, without ends) 1 centimeter in diameter and 1 meter long. That cylinder can’t emit more than 9.425 kilowatts as radiant heat. Divide 9.425 kilowatts by the cylinder’s surface area. To stay below 9.425 kilowatts, the jet of flame can’t emit at an intensity higher than 300 kilowatts per square meter. Apply the Stefan-Boltzmann law in reverse to get an estimate of what temperature gas radiates at 300 kilowatts per square meter. That comes out to a disappointing 1,517 Kelvin, which is cooler than the average wood fire.

I’m not satisfied with that, so I’m going to cheat. Sort of. I’m going to assume that the dragon has a bone in its fire-spewing orifice that acts like a supersonic rocket nozzle, which allows it to emit a very narrow, fast-moving stream of burning gas. The upshot of this is that the jet becomes narrower than that of a pressure washer: 1 mm in diameter throughout its transit through the mouth. That’s a bit more encouraging: 2,697 Kelvin, about the temperature of a hydrogen-air flame (which means we can just use hydrogen as the fuel). It’s still nowhere as hot as I want it to be, but I don’t think Sir Knight is going to be walking away from this one.

We could, of course, push the temperature up by taking into account the fact that the dragon’s mouth isn’t a perfect blackbody, and reflects some of the radiation, but like I said, this isn’t a full post. I just wanted to show you guys how I flesh out an idea.

Stay safe out there. And don’t try to breathe fire.

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Cars, physics, thought experiment

Supersonic Toyota? (Cars, Part 2)

A while ago, I wrote a post that examined, in much greater and (slightly) more accurate detail what speeds my 2007 Toyota Yaris, with its stock drivetrain, could manage under different conditions. This post is all about Earth at sea level, which has gotta be the most boring place for a space enthusiast. Earth at sea level is what rockets are built to get away from, right? But I can make things interesting again by getting rid of the whole “sensible stock drivetrain” thing.

But first, since it’s been quite a while, a refresher: My Yaris looks like this:

2007_toyota_yaris_9100

Its stock four-cylinder engine produces about 100 horsepower and about 100 foot-pounds of torque. My drivetrain has the following gear ratios: 1st: 2.874, 2nd: 1.552, 3rd: 1.000, 4th: 0.700, torque converter: 1.950, differential: 4.237. The drag coefficient is 0.29 and the cross-sectional area is 1.96 square meters. The wheel radius is 14 inches. I’m totally writing all this down for your information, and not so I can be lazy and not have to refer back to the previous post to get the numbers later.

Anyway…let’s start dropping different engines into my car. In some cases, I’m going to leave the drivetrain the same. In other cases, either out of curiosity or for practical reasons (a rarity around here), I’ll consider a different drivetrain. As you guys know by now, if I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna overdo it. But for a change, I’m going to shoot low to start with. I’m going to consider a motor that’s actually less powerful than my actual one.

An Electric Go-Kart Motor

There are people out there who do really high-quality gas-to-electric conversions. I don’t remember where I saw it, but there was one blog-type site that actually detailed converting a similar Toyota to mine to electric power. That conversion involved a large number of batteries and a lot of careful engineering. Me? I’m just slapping this random go-kart motor into it and sticking a couple car batteries in the trunk.

The motor in question produces up to 4 newton-meters (2.95 foot-pounds). That’s not a lot. That’s equivalent to resting the lightest dumbbell they sell at Walmart on the end of a ruler. That is to say, if you glued one end of a ruler to the shaft of this motor and the other end to a table, the motor might not be able to break the ruler.

But I’m feeling optimistic, so let’s do the math anyway. In 4th gear (which gives maximum wheel speed), that 4 newton-meters of torque becomes 4 * 1.950 * 4.237 * 0.700 = 21 Newton-meters. Divide that by the 14-inch radius of my wheels, and the force applied at maximum wheel-speed is 59.060 Newtons. Plug that into the reverse drag equation from the previous post, and you get 12.76 m/s (28.55 mph, 45.95 km/h). That’s actually not too shabby, considering my car probably weighs a good ten times as much as a go-kart and has at least twice the cross-sectional area.

For the electrically-inclined, if I was using ordinary 12 volt batteries, I’d need to assemble them in series strings of 5, to meet the 48 volts required by the motor and overcome losses and varying battery voltages. One of these strings could supply the necessary current of 36 amps to drive the motor at maximum speed and maximum torque. Ordinary car batteries would provide between one and two hours’ drive-time per 5-battery string. That’s actually not too bad. I couldn’t ever take my go-kart Yaris on the highway, but as a runabout, it might work.

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physics, thought experiment

The Highest Mountain

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is that it gives me a chance to answer the questions my irritating eight-year-old self wouldn’t quit asking. It’s like an exorcism: I’m putting to rest the ghost of my incredibly nerdy childhood.

Some of those questions have proven more stubborn than others. For instance: How fast can a planet spin? I talked about that in a previous post, but I’m still not satisfied, so trust me, the centrifuge planet will return.

Another of those questions has actually gotten *harder* to answer the more I’ve learned. It was sparked by a poster in one of my classrooms. The class must have been excruciatingly boring, because although I couldn’t tell you what subject it was or who the teacher was, I can picture that poster very clearly in my head.

It must have been a geometry poster, because it had all sorts of different geometric objects on it: A cube, a hyperboloid, a cone, a flat plane, and a sphere. But what caught my eye was that, to demonstrate the shapes of the surfaces, they put maps of the Earth on them. I spent what felt like hours staring at that poster (probably scaring the hell out of the teacher) while I wondered what it would be like to stand on an Earth shaped like a giant Pringle. Recently, the memory of the poster was reignited by the fantastic, infuriating, and pleasantly inexpensive game HyperRogue, which takes place on a hyperbolic plane that’s a bit like the Pringle-shaped surface.

But until I can hunt down a copy of that poster on e-Bay (and worry people by staring at it for many more hours), my questions about life on a hyperbolic planet will have to go unanswered. Instead, I want to put to rest another stubborn question:

WHAT THE HELL IS THE MAXIMUM HEIGHT OF A MOUNTAIN?

Seriously! How high can a mountain get? I’m not sure why I’m so angry about this, but I think it’s because my own attempts to figure it out have been repeatedly foiled, either by circumstance (read: laziness), or by the fact that geology is more complicated than you might think. I’ve tried to write this very post over half a dozen times, and failed every time. Now, though, I think I can finish what I started.

At first, I assumed the only real limit to a mountain’s height would be the strength of the rock it was made of. As we’ll see by the end, that *does* turn out to be the most important limit, but there are a lot of other important constraints.

The phrase “the tip of the iceberg” is one of those cliches that’s been run over so many times it’s almost invisible on the page. It’s like that one pair of underwear that’s so worn out a harem-girl could use it as a really bizarre veil. But you know what? The phrase is still valid. It’s hard to find proper images of what the rest of an iceberg looks like, but we know it’s far bigger than the tip. We know that because of buoyancy.

For an object to float, it has to displace its own weight’s worth of the medium it’s floating in. That means the floating object has to be less dense (averaged over its whole volume) than the medium. This is why you can float a cannonball in a bucket of mercury. It’s also why the ridiculous-looking Civil War ironclads like this

 

The CSS Virginia or Merrimac

The CSS Virginia or “Merrimac” (Source.)

could float. The mercury is almost one and a half times as dense as the iron cannonball. The ironclad is made of thick metal plates, but those plates are wrapped around a large volume of air and humans, making the overall density low enough that it floats. (Apparently, though, its density was only just barely low enough. When the ship was fully-loaded, its upper deck would be covered in a few inches of water, making it the world’s worst submarine.)

You might be wondering why the hell I’m talking about icebergs all of a sudden. I’ll explain in a moment. For now, though, some calculations. Let’s assume a cubic iceberg. The density of sea ice varies depending on the age of the ice (which determines how much dense salt water is trapped in its pores), but let’s say 1.000 g/cc. The density of average seawater is about 1.027 g/cc.

It turns out that, in order to balance its own weight, a cubic iceberg must have over 97% of its edge length submerged. An iceberg that would only just fit inside a stadium (a 100-meter edge length) would stick up a little higher than the average adult man. 97 meters of it would be underwater. “The tip of the iceberg” is a cliche, yeah, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

I imagine many of you are swearing at me right now. I don’t blame you: I went from talking about a weird poster in my elementary school math class, then promised to talk about mountains, then got sidetracked talking about icebergs. Believe it or not, I’m actually getting at something, because, as it turns out, mountains float like icebergs.

“Mountains float like icebergs.” That sounds like it belongs in a really awful poem. But in a geological sense, it’s kinda true. It’s called isostasy. On geologic timescales, solid rock flows like an incredibly viscous fluid. (Technically it’s a rheid or a viscoelastic solid.) The mantle is much dense than the crust. The crust’s density averages 2.75 g/cc, while the mantle-like transition zone supporting it is around 3.40 g/cc. And luckily, it turns out that, in order to find out how deep the roots of a mountain have to go (I stole that phrase from Tolkein, I’ll admit), we can use the same math we used for icebergs. For the densities I gave above, the math says that a mountain’s root (or foundation, if you prefer) has to go 5.231 times deeper than the mountain’s height.

(Before anyone says anything, I *am* aware that there’ll be a contribution from the mountain’s buoyancy in air, but I’ve already digressed too much as it is.)

Does that mean we can have a mountain as high as we want as long as the roots go deep enough? No, unfortunately. The rock that makes up continental crust is fairly strong and solid down to a depth of about 200 kilometers, where the crust gives way to the asthenosphere. Asthenosphere comes from the Greek for “weak sphere.” It’s a good name: in the asthenosphere, rock gets, well, weak. It also gets mushy, a little like clay. It’s not actually *molten* (in fact, most of the mantle isn’t molten, which I’m still really annoyed my geology teachers never told me), but it’s soft enough that it’s likely to flatten out under pressure.

That means that the pressure exerted by the mountain’s weight and the buoyancy force will squeeze the foundation sideways until the foundation’s shallower than the asthenosphere boundary. On the surface, that means the mountain will sink until it’s about one-fifth as high as the asthenosphere is deep. So no mountain on Earth can reasonably reach higher than 38.234 kilometers.

That’s still damned impressive. Even weather balloons would have to steer around a mountain that high, nevermind airliners. You wanna talk about the death zone? The tip of this mountain would be way above the Armstrong limit. Up there, not only is there too little oxygen to support human life, but the pressure’s so low that *water boils at body temperature*, which is bad news to exposed, wet organs like, say, lungs.

Actually, the mountain might be able to go a little higher than this. Our math so far assumes that the mountain is supported only by its foundation’s buoyancy. It’s like a gigantic peg set in a hole in a continent. In reality, the mountain will be anchored to the crust, by friction if nothing else. That crust is just as reluctant to sink as the crust that makes up the mountain, and plus, it’s got a bit of bending strength. After all, the crust is a mass of rock somewhere between 20 and 100 kilometers thick. This so-called “flexural isostasy” (which doesn’t even look like real words, but is). Imagine a yardstick (or meter-stick, if you swing that way) sticking off the edge of a table. It bends some, but holds itself up. That’s flexural isostasy. Its effect is much harder to calculate, but we know it would help support the mountain, so it would make a positive contribution to a mountain’s maximum height.

But like I said at the beginning, isostasy isn’t the real limiting factor. The limiting factor is much simpler: rocks, like the piers of a bridge, can only support so much weight before they crack. No matter how wide your pillar, if you over-load it, the pressure will squeeze its base outward until its outer layer breaks off, putting all the weight on an even smaller cross-section, which increases the pressure and makes the next layer break off, and so on.

Mountains aren’t columns, though. They’re better approximated as cones. Time to dust off my calculus and figure out the pressure on the base of a conical mountain.

It turns out that the pressure doesn’t depend at all on the steepness of the cone’s sides. This makes sense, if you think about it: A narrow pointy mountain has less mass and therefore less weight, but that weight is concentrated on a much smaller area. A broader mountain is much heavier, but it also has a much bigger cross-section. The formula for the pressure at the base of a mountain is dead-simple:

(1/3) * (density of the rock) * (height of the mountain) * (acceleration due to gravity)

If the pressure exerted by the mountain is larger than the compressive strength of the rock (I’m assuming granite for this calculation), then the rock at the bottom will be very likely to shatter and peel off, and over less-than-geologic time, that’ll trigger rockslides that eat away the mountain’s sides until the mountain is shorter and surrounded by a pile of broken rock. And before you try to say we could just build the whole mountain out of broken rock, that won’t work: gravel flows under pressure, so we’d have the same problem.

Granite’s compressive strength is around 130 megapascals, according to the Engineering Toolbox. Plug that into the formula, and we get a maximum height of 14.461 kilometers. That would be an impressive mountain. If it sat where London is, you’d be able to see the summit from Paris. Still, airliners would only barely have to detour around it, and it’s not even twice the height of Mount Everest. Nothing like the insane mountain in that one H.P. Lovecraft story (the physics of which I’ll forgive because Lovecraft is awesome).

But what if we exploited that flexural isostasy by saying the crust around the mountain is just really absurdly thick and strong? No dice. The transition from crust to asthenosphere happens above a particular pressure and temperature, which means a particular depth below the surface. Say we have an Australia-sized plateau that sits twenty kilometers higher than the surrounding crust. That just means that, beneath the plateau, the asthenosphere will start twenty kilometers above the asthenosphere of the normal crust, which means the whole damn plateau will undergo plastic deformation and sink like a deflating marshmallow until it’s close to the same height as the crust around it. That’s hydrostatic equilibrium at work. It’s like trying to build a tower out of mud: for any reasonable height, it’s just going to flatten itself out.

But if you’re like me and you *demand* a really heigh mountain, you could try varying the parameters in the equation. You could build your mountain from something less dense, like ice, which decreases the weight, which seems like it should decrease the maximum height. Unfortunately, not only is ice much weaker under compression than granite, but ice is a rheid, and flows like a liquid under pressure, over shorter-than-geologic timescales. That’s one of the reasons glaciers look like rivers: they almost *are*.

The only other parameter we can control is the acceleration due to gravity. That means that, if you want a really enormous mountain, you have to go to another planet.

Mars proves my point with Olympus Mons, an ancient shield volcano the size of France. It reaches 22 kilometers high. Earth’s highest mountain (measured relative to sea level) is Mount Everest, at 8.848 kilometers.

Mars has two advantages when it comes to building huge mountains: it’s got a lower surface gravity, which means the rock weighs less; and its interior is a lot cooler, meaning the asthenosphere (if it even exists) starts much deeper.

For a long time, Olympus Mons was calle dthe highest mountain in the solar system. That, though, is kinda hard to say with a straight face. Olympus Mons is the clear winner if its altitude is 26 kilometers, which is its altitude as measured from the low-lying plains nearby. Olympus Mons, though, is such a wide mountain that those plains are a thousand kilometers from the summit. At that distance, we’re no longer dealing with “pointy mountain rising above a plain” as much as “lump of putty squished against a globe.” I presume the 22-kilometer height is measured against Mars’s effective sea level or its geoid or something like that, which in my mind is a more sensible way to measure height.

But even though Olympus Mons might still be the tallest, it’s probably going to have to share the title. It almost loses out to the bizarre ridge that runs around [Iapetus’s] equator. Iapetus has always kind of creeped me out. It looks *wrong*. It looks like the ancient seed of a universe-devouring demon-vine. Maybe that’s just me. But either way, the equatorial ridge rises 20 kilometers above the surface, almost dethroning Olympus, and making a visible bump in Iapetus’s silhouette

Iapetus

Iapetus. (Source.)

But Olympus’s best competitor isn’t found on a planet. It’s found on the asteroid slash dwarf planet Vesta: Rheasilvia Mons, rising 22 kilometers above the local topography.

Rheasilvia

Rheasilvia region, with Rheasilvia Mons just above center. (Source.)

This, though, is as much of a cheat as saying Olympus Mons is 26 kilometers high, because Vesta is a very lumpy object, and the local topography of Rheasilvia is (probably) a gigantic planet-shattering impact basin the size of Sri Lanka. It covers most of Vesta’s southern hemisphere, and it’s so big and so deep that it squishes Vesta way out of sphericality, which makes deciding what standard to use when measuring Rheasilvia’s height a little tricky.

Still, Olympus Mons, Iapetus’s creepy Winter Wall, and the apocalyptic mountain on Vesta prove two things: even the most sterile airless bodies are amazing, and that I was right: mountain height is mostly constrained by gravitational acceleration, which determines how high a mountain gets before it exceeds its rock’s compressional strength.

That’s done. Time to go find some more childhood demons to exorcise.

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Sundiving, Part 2

In the previous post, I figured out how to get a spacecraft to an altitude of one solar radius (meaning one solar radius above the Sun’s surface, and two solar radii from its center). That’s nice and all, but unless we figure out how to get it the rest of the way down intact, then we’ve essentially done the same thing as a flight engineer who sends an astronaut into orbit in a fully-functional space capsule, but forgets to put a parachute on it. (Not that I know anything about that. Cough cough Kerbal Space Program cough…)

The sun is vicious. Anyone who’s ever had a good peeling sunburn knows this, and cringes at the thought. And anyone who, in spite of their parents’ warnings, has looked directly at the sun, also knows this. But I’ve got a better demonstration. I have a big 8.5 x 11-inch Fresnel lens made to magnify small print. I also have a lovely blowtorch that burns MAP-Pro, a gas that’s mostly propylene, which is as close as a clumsy idiot like me should ever come to acetylene. Propylene burns hot. About 2,200 Kelvin. I turned it on a piece of gravel and a piece of terra cotta. It got them both orange-hot, but that was the best it could do. The Fresnel lens, a cheap-ass plastic thing I bought at a drugstore, melted both in seconds (albeit in very small patches), using nothing more than half a square foot of sunlight.

Actually, the area of that magnifier is handy to have around. It’s 0.0603 square meters. On the surface of the Earth, we get (very roughly) 1,300 watts per square meter of sunlight (that’s called the solar constant). To melt terra cotta, I have to get the spot down to about a centimeter across. The lens intercepts about 80 Watts. If those 80 Watts are focused on a circle a centimeter across, then the target is getting irradiated with 770 solar constants, which, if it was a perfect absorber, would raise its temperature to 2,000 Kelvin. If I can get the spot is half a centimeter across, then we’re talking 3,070 solar constants and temperatures approaching 3,000 Kelvin.

And while I was playing around with my giant magnifier, I made a stupid mistake. Holding the lens with one hand, I reached down to re-position my next target. The light spot, about the size of a credit card, fell on the back of my hand. I said words I usually reserve for when I’ve hit my finger with a hammer. This is why you should always be careful with magnifying lenses. Even small ones can burn you and start fires.

The area of a standard credit card is about 13 times smaller than the area of my lens, so my hand was getting 13 solar constants. And even a measly 13 solar constants was more than enough to sting my skin like I was being attacked by a thousand wasps. Even at the limit of my crappy Fresnel lens, somewhere between 770 and 3,070 solar constants, we’re already in stone-melting territory.

At an altitude of 1 solar radius, our Sundiver will be getting to 11,537 solar constants. Enough to raise a perfect absorber to 4,000 Kelvin, which can melt every material we can make in bulk. Our poor Sundiver hasn’t even reached the surface and already it’s a ball of white-hot slag.

Except that I’ve conveniently neglected one thing: reflectivity. If the Sundiver was blacker than asphalt, sure, it would reach 4,000 Kelvin and melt. But why on Earth would we paint an object black if we’re planning to send it to the place where all that heat-producing sunlight comes from? That’s even sillier than those guys you see wearing black hoodies in high summer.

My first choice for a reflective coating would be silver. But there’s a massive problem with silver. Here are two graphs to explain that problem:

(Source.)

Sun Blackbody

(Source is obvious.)

The top spectrum shows the reflectivities of aluminum (Al), silver (Ag, because Latin), and gold (Au) at wavelengths between 200 nanometers (ultraviolet light; UV-C, to be specific: the kind produced by germicidal lamps) and 5,000 nanometers (mid-infrared, the wavelength heat-seeking missiles use).

The bottom spectrum is the blackbody spectrum for an object at a temperature of 5,778 Kelvin, which is a very good approximation for the solar spectrum. See silver’s massive dip in reflectivity around 350 nanometers? See how it happens, rather inconveniently, right around the peak of the solar emission spectrum? Sure, a silver shield would be good at reflecting most of the infra-red light, but what the hell good is that if it’s still soaking up all that violet and UV?

Gold does a little better (and you can see from that spectrum why they use gold in infrared mirrors), but it still bottoms out right where we don’t want it to. (Interesting note: see how gold is fairly reflective between 500 nanometers and 1,000 nanometers, but not nearly as reflective between 350 nanometers and 500 nanometers? And see how silver stays above 80% reflectivity between 350 and 1,000? That’s the reason gold is gold-colored and silver is silver-colored. Gold absorbs more green, blue, indigo, and violet than it does red, orange, and yellow. Silver is almost-but-not quite constant across this range, which covers the visible spectrum, so it reflects all visible light pretty much equally. Spectra are awesome.)

Much to my surprise, our best bet for a one-material reflector is aluminum. My personal experiences with aluminum are almost all foil-related. My blowtorch will melt aluminum, so it might seem like a bad choice, but in space, there’s so little gas that almost all heat transfer is by radiation, so it might still work. And besides, if you electropolish it, aluminum is ridiculously shiny.

(Image from the Finish Line Materials & Processes, Ltd. website.)

That’s shiny. And it’s not just smooth to the human eye–it’s smooth on scales so small you’d need an electron microscope to see them. They electro-polish things like medical implants, to get rid of the microscopic jagged bits that would otherwise really annoy the immune system. So get those images of crinkly foil out of your head. We’re talking a mirror better than you’ve ever seen.

Still, aluminum’s not perfect. Notice how its reflectivity spectrum has an annoying dip at about 800 nanometers. The sun’s pretty bright at that wavelength. Still, it manages 90% or better across almost all of the spectrum we’re concerned about. (Take note, though: in the far ultraviolet, somewhere around 150 nanometers, even aluminum bottoms out, and the sun is still pretty bright even at these short wavelengths. We’ll have to deal with that some other way.)

So our aluminum Sun-shield is reflecting 90% of the 15.7 million watts falling on every square meter. That means it’s absorbing the other 10%, or 1.57 million watts per square meter.

Bad news: even at an altitude of 1 solar radius, and even with a 90% reflective electropolished aluminum shield, the bastard’s still going to melt. It’s going to reach over 2,000 Kelvin, and aluminum melts at 933.

We might be able to improve the situation by using a dielectric mirror. Metal mirrors reflect incoming photons because metal atoms’ outer electrons wander freely from one atom to another, forming a conductive “sea”. Those electrons are easy to set oscillating, and that oscillation releases a photon of similar wavelength, releasing almost all the energy the first photon deposited. Dielectric mirrors, on the other hand, consist of a stack of very thin (tens of nanometers) layers with different refractive indices. For reference, water has a refractive index of 1.333. Those cool, shiny bulletproof Lexan windows that protect bank tellers have a refractive index of about 1.5. High-grade crystal glassware is about the same. Diamonds are so pretty and shiny and sparkly because their refractive index is 2.42, which makes for a lot of refraction and internal reflection.

These kind of reflections are what make dielectric mirrors work. The refractive index measures how fast light travels through a particular medium. It travels at 299,792 km/s through vacuum. It travels at about 225,000 km/s through water and about 124,000 km/s through diamond. This means, effectively, that light has farther to go through the high-index stuff, and if you arrange the layers right, you can set it up so that a photon that makes it through, say, two layers of the stack will have effectively traveled exactly three times the distance, which means the waves will add up rather than canceling out, which means they’re leaving and taking their energy with them, rather than canceling and leaving their energy in your mirror.

This, of course, only works for a wavelength that matches up with the thickness of your layers. Still, close to the target frequency, a dielectric mirror can do better than 99.9% reflectivity. And if you use some scary algorithms to optimize the thicknesses of the different layers, you can set it up so that it reflects over a much broader spectrum, by making the upper layers very thin to reflect short-wavelength light (UV, et cetera) and the deeper layers reflect red and infra-red. The result is a “chirped mirror,” which is yet another scientific name that pleases me in ways I don’t understand. Here’s the reflection spectrum of a good-quality chirped mirror:

(Source.)

Was I inserting that spectrum just an excuse to say “chirped mirror” again? Possibly. Chirped mirror.

Point is, the chirped mirror does better than aluminum for light between 300 and 900 nanometers (which covers most or all of the visible spectrum). But it drops below 90% for long enough that it’s probably going to overheat and melt. And there’s another problem: even at an altitude of 1 solar radius, the Sundiver’s going to be going upwards of 400 kilometers per second. If the Sundiver crosses paths with the smallest of asteroids (thumbnail-sized or smaller), or even a particularly bulky dust grain, there’s going to be trouble. To explain why, here’s a video of a peanut-sized aluminum cylinder hitting a metal gas canister at 7 kilometers per second, 57 times slower than the Sundiver will be moving:

We have a really, really hard time accelerating objects anywhere near this speed. We can’t do too much better than 10 to 20 km/s on the ground, and in space, we can at best double or triple that, and only if we use gravity assists and clever trajectories. On the ground, there are hypersonic dust accelerators, which can accelerate bacterium-sized particles to around 100 km/s, which is a little better.

But no matter the velocity, the news is not good. A 5-micron solid particle will penetrate at least 5 microns into the sunshade (according to Newton’s impact depth approximation). Not only will that rip straight through dozens of layers of our carefully-constructed chirped mirror, but it’s also going to deposit almost all of its kinetic energy inside the shield. A particle that size only masses 21.5 picograms, so its kinetic energy (according to Wolfram Alpha) is about the same required to depress a computer key. Not much, but when you consider that this is a bacterium-sized mote pressing a computer key, that’s a lot of power. It’s also over 17,000 times as much kinetic energy as you’d get from 21.5 picograms of TNT.

As for a rock visible to the naked eye (100 microns in diameter, as thick as a hair), the news just gets worse. A particle that size delivers 110.3 Joules, twenty times as much as a regular camera’s flash, and one-tenth as much as one of those blinding studio flashbulbs. All concentrated on a volume too small to squeeze a dust mite into.

And if the Sundiver should collide with a decent-sized rock (1 centimeter diameter, about the size of a thumbnail), well, you might as well just go ahead and press the self-destruct button yourself, because that pebble would deliver as much energy as 26 kilos (over 50 pounds) of TNT. We’re talking a bomb bigger than a softball. You know that delicately-layered dielectric mirror we built, with its precisely-tuned structure chemically deposited to sub-nanometer precision? Yeah. So much for that. It’s now a trillion interestingly-structured fragments falling to their death in the Sun.

My point is that a dielectric mirror, although it’s much more reflective than a metal one, won’t cut it. Not where we’re going. We have to figure out another way to get rid of that extra heat. And here’s how we’re going to do it: heat pipes.

The temperature of the shield will only reach 2,000 Kelvin if its only pathway for getting rid of absorbed heat is re-radiating it. And it just so happens that our ideal shield material, aluminum, is a wimp and can’t even handle 1,000 Kelvin. But aluminum is a good conductor of heat, so we can just thread the sunshade with copper pipes, sweep the heat away with a coolant, and transfer it to a radiator.

But how much heat are we going to have to move? And has anybody invented a way to move it without me having to do a ridiculous handwave? To find that out, we’re going to need to know the area of our sunshade. Here’s a diagram of that sunshade.

Sunshade 2

I wanted to make a puerile joke about that, but the more I look at it, the less I think “sex toy” and the more I think “lava lamp.” In this diagram, the sunshade is the long cone. The weird eggplant-shaped dotted line is the hermetically-sealed module containing the payload. That payload will more than likely be scientific instruments, and not a nuclear bomb with the mass of Manhattan island, because that was probably the most ridiculous thing about Sunshine. Although (spoiler alert), Captain Pinbacker was pretty out there, too.

The shield is cone-shaped for many reasons. One is that, for any given cross-sectional radius, you’re going to be absorbing the same amount of heat no matter the shield’s area, but the amount you can radiate depends on total, not cross-sectional, area. Let’s say the cone is 5 meters long and 2 meters in diameter at the base. If it’s made of 90% reflective electropolished aluminum, it’s going to absorb 4.93 megawatts of solar radiation at an altitude of 1 solar radius. Its cross-section is 3.142 square meters, but its total surface area is 16.02 square meters. That means that, to lose all its heat by radiation alone, the shield would have to reach a blackbody temperature of 1,500 Kelvin. Still almost twice aluminum’s melting point, but already a lot more bearable. If we weren’t going to get any closer than an altitude of 1 solar radius, we could swap the aluminum mirror out for aluminum-coated graphite and we could just let the shield cool itself. I imagine this is why the original solar probe designs used conical or angled bowl-shaped shields: small cross-sectional area, but a large area to radiate heat. But where we’re going, I suspect passive cooling is going to be insufficient sooner or later, so we might as well install our active cooling system now.

Heat pipes are awesome things. You can find them in most laptops. They’re the bewildering little copper tubes that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But they do serve a purpose. They’re hollow. Inside them is a working fluid (which, at laptop temperatures, is usually water or ammonia). The tube is evacuated to a fairly low pressure, so that, even near its freezing point, water will start to boil. The inner walls of the heat pipe are covered with either a metallic sponge or with a series of thin inward-pointing fins. These let the coolant wick to the hot end, where it evaporates. Evaporation is excellent for removing heat. It deposits that heat at the cold end, where something (a passive or active radiator or, in the case of a laptop, a fan and heat sink) disposes of the heat.

Many spacecraft use heat pipes for two reasons. 1) The absence of an atmosphere means the only way to get rid of heat is to radiate it, either from the spacecraft itself, or, more often, by moving the heat to a radiator and letting it radiate from there; heat pipes do this kind of job beautifully; 2) most heat pipes contain no moving parts whatsoever, and will happily go on doing their jobs forever as long as there’s a temperature difference between the ends, and as long as they don’t spring a leak or get clogged.

On top of this, some heat pipes can conduct heat even better than solid copper. Copper’s thermal conductivity is 400 Watts per meter per Kelvin difference, which is surpassed only by diamond (and graphene, which we can’t yet produce in bulk). But heat pipes can do better than one-piece bulk materials: Wikipedia says 100,000 Watts per meter per Kelvin difference, which my research leads me to believe is entirely reasonable. (Fun fact: high-temperature heat pipes have been used to transport heat from experimental nuclear reactor cores to machinery that can turn that heat into electricity. These heat pipes use molten frickin’ metal and metal vapor as their working fluids.)

The temperature difference is going to be the difference between the temperature of the shield (in this case, around 1,500 Kelvin at the beginning) and outer space (which is full of cosmic background radiation at an effective temperature of 2.3 Kelvin, but let’s say 50 Kelvin to account for things like reflected light off zodiacal dust, light from the solar corona, and because it’s always better to over-build a spacecraft than to under-build it).

When you do the math, at an altitude of 1 solar radius, we need to transport 4.93 megawatts of heat over a distance of 5 meters across a temperature differential of 1,450 Kelvin. That comes out to 680 Watts per meter per Kelvin difference. Solid copper can’t quite manage it, but a suitable heat pipe could do it with no trouble.

But we still have to get rid of the heat. For reasons that will become clear when Sundiver gets closer to the Sun, the back of the spacecraft has to be very close to a flat disk. So we’ve got 3.142 square meters in which to fit our radiator. Let’s say 3 square meters, since we’re probably going to want to mount things like thruster ports and antennae on the protected back side. Since we’re dumping 4.93 megawatts through a radiator with an area of 3 square meters, that radiator’s going to have to be able to handle a temperature of at least 2,320 Kelvin. Luckily, that’s more than manageable. Tungsten would work, but graphite is probably our best choice, because it’s fairly tough, it’s unreactive, and it’s a hell of a lot lighter than tungsten, which is so dense they use it in eco-friendly bullets as a replacement for lead (yes, there’s such a thing as eco-friendly bullets). Let’s go with graphite for now, and see if it’s still a good choice closer to the Sun. (After graphite, our second-best choice would be niobium, which is only about as dense as iron, with a melting point of 2,750 Kelvin. I’m sticking with graphite, because things are going to get hot pretty fast, and the niobium probably won’t cut it. (Plus, “graphite radiator” has a nicer ring to it than “niboium radiator.”)

Our radiator’s going to be glowing orange-hot. We’ll need a lot of insulation to minimize thermal contact between the shield-and-radiator structure and the payload, but we can do that with more mirrors, more heat pipes, and insulating cladding made from stuff like like calcium silicate or thermal tiles filled with silica aerogel.

Of course, all the computations so far have been done for an altitude of 1 solar radius. And I didn’t ask for a ship that could survive a trip to 1 solar radius. I want to reach the freakin surface! Life is already hard for our space probe, and it’s going to get worse very rapidly. So let’s re-set our clock, with T=0 seconds being the moment the Sundiver passes an altitude of 1 solar radius.

Altitude: 0.5 solar radii

T+50 minutes, 46 seconds

Speed: 504 km/s

Solar irradiance: 28 megawatts per square meter (20,600 solar constants)

Temperature of a perfect absorber: 4,700 Kelvin (hot enough to boil titanium and melt niobium)

Total heat flux: 8.79 megawatts

Temperature of a 90% reflective flat shield: 2,700 Kelvin (almost hot enough to boil aluminum)

Temperature of Sundiver’s conical shield (radiation only): 1,764 Kelvin (still too hot for aluminum)

Radiator temperature: 2,600 Kelvin (manageable)

Required heat conductivity: 1,000 Watts per meter per Kelvin difference (manageable)

Altitude: 0.25 solar radii

T+1 hour, 0 minutes, 40 seconds

Speed: 553 km/s

Solar irradiance: 40.3 megawatts per square meter (29,600)

Temperature of a perfect absorber: 5,200 Kelvin (hot enough to boil almost all metals. Not tungsten, though. Niobium boils.)

Total heat flux: 12.66 megawatts

Temperature of a 90% reflective flat shield: 2,900 Kelvin (more than hot enough to boil aluminum)

Temperature of Sundiver’s conical shield (radiation only): 1,900 Kelvin (way too hot for aluminum)

Radiator temperature: 2,900 Kelvin (more than manageable, but the radiant heat would probably hurt your eyes)

Required heat conductivity: 1,400 Watts per meter per kelvin difference (manageable)

Altitude: 0.1 solar radii

T+1 hour, 5 minutes, 25 seconds

Speed: 589 km/s

Solar irradiance: 52 megawatts per square meter

Temperature of a perfect absorber: 5,500 Kelvin (tungsten melts, but still doesn’t boil; tungsten’s tough stuff; niobium is boiling)

Total heat flux: 16.34 megawatts

Temperature of a flat shield: 3,000 Kelvin (tungsten doesn’t melt, but it’s probably uncomfortable)

Temperature of our conical shield: 2,000 Kelvin (getting uncomfortably close to aluminum’s boiling point)

Radiator temperature: 3,100 Kelvin (tungsten and carbon are both giving each other worried looks; the shield can cause fatal radiant burns from several meters)

Required heat conductivity: 1,600 watts per meter per kelvin difference (still manageable, much to my surprise)

Altitude: 0.01 solar radii (1% of a solar radius)

T+1 hour, 8 minutes, 11 seconds

Speed: 615 km/s

Irradiance: 61 megawatts per square meter

Temperature of a perfect absorber: 5,700 Kelvin (graphite evaporates, but tungsten is just barely hanging on)

Total heat flux: 19.38 megawatts

Temperature of a flat shield: 3,200 Kelvin (most materials have melted; tungsten and graphite are still holding on)

Temperature of our conical shield: 2,100 Kelvin (titanium melts)

Radiator temperature: 3,200 Kelvin (tungsten and graphite are still stable, but at this point, the radiator itself is almost as much of a hazard as the Sun)

Required heat conductivity: 1,900 Watts per meter per Kelvin difference (we’re still okay, although we’re running into trouble)

The Sundiver finally strikes the Sun’s surface traveling at 618 kilometers per second. Except “strike” is a little melodramatic. The Sundiver’s no more striking the Sun than I strike the air when I jump off a diving board. The Sun’s surface is (somewhat) arbitrarily defined as the depth the sun’s plasma gets thin enough to transmit over half the light that hits it. At an altitude of 0 solar radii, the Sun’s density is a tenth of a microgram per cubic centimeter. For comparison, the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t get that thin until you get 60 kilometers (about 30 miles) up, which is higher than even the best high-altitude balloons can go. Even a good laboratory vacuum is denser than this.

But even this thin plasma is a problem. The problem isn’t necessarily that the Sundiver is crashing into too much matter, it’s that it’s that the matter it is hitting is depositing a lot of kinetic energy. Falling at 618 kilometers per second, it encounters solar wind protons traveling the opposite direction at upwards of 700 kilometers per second, for a total velocity of 1,300 kilometers per second. Even at photosphere densities, when the gas is hitting you at 1,300 kilometers per second, it transfers a lot of energy. We’re talking 17 gigawatts per square centimeter, enough to heat the shield to a quarter of a million Kelvin.

This spells the end for the Sundiver. It might survive a few seconds of this torture, but its heat shield is going to be evaporating very rapidly. It won’t get more than a few thousand kilometers into the photosphere before the whole spacecraft vaporizes.

In fact, even at much lower densities (a million hydrogen atoms per cubic centimeter), the energy flux due to the impacts of protons alone is greater than one solar constant. (XKCD’s What-If, the inspiration for this whole damn blog, pointed this out when talking about dropping tungsten countertops into the sun.) At 1.0011 solar radii, the proton flux is more than enough to heat the shield up hotter than a lightning bolt. As a matter of fact, when the solar wind density exceeds 0.001 picograms per cubic centimeter (1e-15 g/cc), the energy flux from protons alone is going to overheat the shield. It’s hard to work out at what altitude this will happen, since we still don’t know very much about the environment and the solar wind close to the sun (one of the questions Solar Probe+ will hopefully answer when (if) it makes its more pedestrian and sensible trip to 8 solar radii.) But we know for certain the shield will overheat by the time we hit zero altitude. The whole Sundiver will turn into a wisp of purplish-white vapor that’ll twist and whirl away on the Sun’s magnetic field.

But even if heating from the solar wind wasn’t a problem, the probe was never going to get much deeper than zero altitude. Here’s a list of all the problems that would kill it, even if the heat from the solar wind didn’t:

1) This close to the Sun, the sun’s disk fills half the sky, meaning anything that’s not inside the sunshade is going to be in direct sunlight and get burned off. That’s why I said earlier that the back of the Sundiver had to be very close to flat.

2) The radiator will reach its melting point. Besides, we would probably need high-power heat pumps rather than heat pipes to keep heat flowing from the 2,000 Kelvin shield to the 3,000-Kelvin radiator. And even that might not be enough.

3) Even if we ignore the energy added by the proton flux, those protons are going to erode the shield mechanically. According to SRIM, the conical part of the shield (which has a half-angle of 11 degrees) is going to lose one atom of aluminum for every three proton impacts. At this rate, the shield’s going to be losing 18.3 milligrams of aluminum per second to impacts alone. While that’s not enough to wear through the shield, even if it’s only a millimeter thick, my hunch is that all that sputtering is going to play hell with the aluminum’s structure, and probably make it a lot less reflective.

4) Moving at 618 kilometers per second through a magnetic field is a bad idea. Unless the field is perfectly uniform (the Sun’s is the exact opposite of uniform: it looks like what happens if you give a kitten amphetamines and set it loose on a ball of yarn), you’re going to be dealing with some major eddy currents induced by the field, and that means even more heating. And we can’t afford any extra heating.

5) This is related to 1): even if the Sun had a perfectly well-defined surface (it doesn’t), the moment Sundiver passed through that surface, its radiator would be less than useless. In practical terms, the vital temperature differential between the radiator and empty space would vanish, since even in the upper reaches of the photosphere, the temperature exceeds 4,000 Kelvin. There simply wouldn’t be anywhere for the heat to go. So if we handwaved away all the other problems, Sundiver would still burn up.

6) Ram pressure. Ram pressure is what you get when the fluid you’re moving through is too thin for proper fluid dynamics to come into play. The photosphere might be, as astronomers say, a red-hot vacuum, but the Sundiver is moving through it at six hundred times the speed of a rifle bullet, and ram pressure is proportional to gas density and the square of velocity. Sundiver is going to get blown to bits by the rushing gas, and even if it doesn’t, by the time it reaches altitude zero, it’s going to be experiencing the force of nine Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters across its tiny 3.142-square-meter shield. For a 1,000-kilogram spacecraft, that’s a deceleration of 1,200 gees and a pressure higher than the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. But at the bottom of the trench, at least that pressure would be coming equally from all directions. In this case, the pressure at the front of the shield would be a thousand atmospheres and the pressure at the back would be very close to zero. Atoms of spacecraft vapor and swept-up hydrogen are going to fly from front to back faster than the jet from a pressure washer, and they’re going to play hell with whatever’s left of the spacecraft.

Here’s the closest I could come to a pretty picture of what would happen to Sundiver. Why do my thought experiments never have happy endings?

Sundiver Descent Profile SM WM

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