In August, NASA will launch a new interplanetary spacecraft to “touch” the Sun — and the vehicle just got its super durable heat shield for the trip. At the end of June, engineers installed the protective shield on the craft, dubbed the Parker Solar Probe, in Florida, where it’s currently being prepped for launch. The heat shield will keep the probe relatively cool as it encounters blistering temperatures near our Solar System’s star.
The Parker Solar Probe is meant to get closer to the Sun than any vehicle before it. The probe will sit just 4 million miles away from the Sun’s surface, where it will interact with the solar corona, or outer atmosphere. The goal is to learn more about how heat flows within this weird region of space. Every so often, particles within the corona get super heated and shoot out from the Sun in what’s known as solar wind. This stream of particles can mingle with Earth’s magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms that mess with our satellites and power grid and create auroras. So NASA is interested in figuring out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon to better understand how solar wind occurs.
But if you’re going to the Sun’s corona, you need a way to keep cool. That’s where the heat shield comes in. The shield is light, weighing in at just 160 pounds, and is made up of two layers of carbon-carbon composite that surround a thick core made of foam. The probe has to reach speeds of 430,000 miles per hour in space, so it can’t be too heavy, or else it won’t get into the necessary orbit.
Still, the shield should be able to do the trick. It’s meant to protect anything that falls within its shadow, which should cover the spacecraft and its instruments. The shield also sports a special white coating to reflect the Sun’s heat. If it does its job correctly, the shield will reach temperatures of more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit while the Parker Solar Probe stays just 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
With the shield’s installation, the Parker Solar Probe is nearly ready for launch. The spacecraft is slated to launch on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, out of Cape Canaveral, Florida as early as August 4th.