Next month, NASA is set to launch a pioneering new mission towards the center of our solar system. The Solar Parker Probe will become the spacecraft to most closely orbit our Sun, all things going to plan. And a pretty important part of that plan is the advanced heat shield now installed by NASA engineers, which will protect the probe from the intense heat as it travels closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before it.
This advanced heat shield goes right to the core of the mission's success. Scientists have been intrigued by the mechanics of the Sun and the solar winds that it emits for decades, ever since astrophysicist Eugene Parker first described what he believed to be high-speed matter and magnetism emanating from the star almost 60 years ago.
We now know that these high-speed streams of subatomic particles and magnetic field hurtle outwards from the Sun and influence the planets making up our solar system. On Mars, they have been found to be slowly stripping away its atmosphere, atom by atom. On Earth, they smash into our own magnetic field and cause geomagnetic storms, trigger polar auroras and even interfere with GPS signals.
For so long, traveling to the birthplace of these solar winds was an undertaking that was simply too hot to handle. Doing so would mean traveling through the Sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, to encounter temperatures of nearly 2,500° F (1,377° C), an environment inhospitable to even the most intrepid of space probes.
The 160-lb (72 kg) heat shield that now makes this possible is the result of recent advances in thermal engineering. It comprises two panels of superheated carbon-carbon composite, with a 4.5-inch thick (11.5 cm) slab of carbon foam in between. The panel that faces the Sun is also sprayed with a special white coating to bounce away its energy. All in all, the eight-foot-wide (2.5-m) shield will keep the probe and its instruments to a cool 85° F (29.5° C) as it goes about its business.
That business will involve orbiting the Sun as closely as 3.7 million miles (6.27 million km) to its surface and traveling through the birthplace of the highest- energy solar particles, where solar winds go from subsonic to supersonic speeds. The onboard instruments are designed to image the solar wind, as well as study the magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles.
The findings of the Solar Parker Probe will hopefully teach us more about the way energy and heat make their way through the Sun's atmosphere. In turn, this could bring a new understanding about other stars in the universe and perhaps even how life on Earth evolved.
With the shield now permanently attached to the probe, engineers have put it through testing and evaluation in preparation for its launch next month.
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