The first spacecraft to “touch” the sun is inching closer and closer to its momentous launch. Come August 4, the Parker Solar Probe will venture directly into the sun’s atmosphere, “where it will collect unprecedented data about the inner workings of the corona,” notes the U.S. space agency.
As reported by the Inquisitr, this historic journey will bring the solar probe as close as 4 million miles from the sun’s surface.
In order to make it through the inhospitable environment of the solar corona and come away unscathed from humanity’s first mission to the sun, the Parker probe has been fitted with a “cutting-edge heat shield,” NASA announced on Thursday.
Dubbed the Thermal Protection System, or TPS, the heat shield was mounted on the Parker spacecraft on June 27 and is described by the space agency as “revolutionary.” Here’s why.
Made up of two superheated carbon-carbon composite panels that enclose a carbon foam core in the middle, the TPS is extremely light but packs a very high protective power.
Weighing no more than 160 pounds (or about 72.5 kilograms), the heat shield installed on the Parker probe is strong enough to withstand the scorching temperatures of the solar corona.
The shield measures eight feet in diameter and is designed to cast a shadow, also known as an umbra, on the car-sized spacecraft, protecting everything under it from the blistering solar blaze.
“At Parker Solar Probe’s closest approach to the Sun, temperatures on the heat shield will reach nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, but the spacecraft and its instruments will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit,” NASA officials wrote in the news release.
Or, as CNET puts it, “in front of the shield: fiery hellscape; behind the shield: serene summer afternoon.”
To maximize heat protection, the TPS “is also sprayed with a specially formulated white coating” on the side directly facing the sun, in order “to reflect as much of the Sun’s energy away from the spacecraft as possible,” notes NASA. At the same time, the shield “connects to the custom-welded truss on the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft at six points to minimize heat conduction.”
After being briefly installed on the Parker probe last fall, when it was tested at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, the heat shield has now been permanently attached to the spacecraft, marking “the first time in months that Parker Solar Probe has been fully integrated,” state NASA officials.
Due to its light weight, the newly installed heat shield allows the Parker probe to remain slender enough to maneuver into its designated orbit around the sun. In fact, the shield’s carbon foam core is only 4.5 inches (almost 12 centimeters) thick and consists of 97 percent air here on Earth.
During its closest approach to the sun, the spacecraft will be traveling at incredible speeds of 430,000 mph — fast enough to get from Washington D.C. to Tokyo in less than a minute, the space agency points out.
Both the heat shield and the spacecraft itself have been independently tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland earlier this year. As the Inquisitr recently reported, the TPS and the Parker Solar Probe were shipped off to Florida in April, in anticipation of the final preparations before the August launch.