NASA is going to send a spacecraft to the Sun. That, on its own, is pretty wild, but the fact that scientists plan on the Parker Solar Probe spending seven years orbiting our star, constantly gathering data and relaying observations back to Earth, is a whole other level of insane. Now, NASA has taken the time to explain how the probe will prevent itself from dying an early death.
The probe, which is slated to launch in August, is going to get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft ever has, coming within 3.9 million miles of the star on its closest approach. That sounds like a huge distance, but it’s actually very, very close when you’re talking about something as big as the Sun. At that distance, temperatures are hot enough to melt solid steel, but NASA has a plan for keeping the probe cool.
As we’ve already seen, the probe is equipped with a thick heat shield that will always be pointed towards the Sun as the spacecraft cruises through its orbit. The shield is several inches thick and is made mostly of carbon that has been superheated. According to NASA, the shield should be more than enough to keep the probe at a very comfortable 85 degrees Fahrenheit even in the face of the Sun’s intense rays.
In a new video, NASA talks about the tools that the probe is equipped with that will keep it correctly aligned so as not to expose its delicate instruments to the Sun’s heat. A series of “solar limb sensors” are constantly keeping an eye for the harsh light from the star, and if one of them detects it is being hit with light, it will adjust the probe so that the spacecraft is pointing its heat shield perfectly at the Sun.
The Parker Solar Probe will venture to the Sun’s corona, which is hot but not particularly dense. That allows the probe remain cool so long as its shield is oriented. If, by some error, the probe were to accidentally orient itself sideways, things would go south in a hurry, but the spacecraft is designed to prevent that from happening at all costs.