How the Parker probe was built to survive close encounters with the sun

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NASA has a mantra for preparing spacecraft to launch: “Test as you fly.” The idea is to test the entire spacecraft, fully assembled, in the same environment and configuration that it will see in orbit.

But the Parker Solar Probe, set to launch August 11, is no ordinary spacecraft (SN Online: 7/5/2018). And it’s headed to no ordinary environment. Parker will sweep through the sun’s scorching hot atmosphere for humankind’s first close encounter with the star at the center of the solar system.

“Solar Probe is a little bit special,” says space plasma physicist Stuart Bale of the University of California, Berkeley. Getting the whole kit and caboodle into a setting that simulated the sun’s energetic particles, intense light and searing heat “was deemed impossible.” Scientists had to get creative to test the technology that will touch the sun, using everything from huge mirrors to dust tunnels to reams of paper.

Taking the heat

The first order of business was to find materials that can stand the heat. The sun’s atmosphere, or corona, sizzles at millions of degrees Celsius — but it is so diffuse that it doesn’t pose much threat to the spacecraft (SN Online: 8/20/17). Direct sunlight, however, can heat exposed components to around 1370° Celsius. Two of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, plus parts of its solar panels and its revolutionary heat shield, will be exposed to that searing sunlight at all times.

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