Sur­viv­ing the IN­FERNO

Parker will pass closer to the Sun than any hu­man-made ob­ject be­fore it, but how will it stay safe?

Sky at Night Magazine - - PARKER SOLAR PROBE -

To sur­vive tem­per­a­tures up to 1,400ºC at close quar­ters to the Sun, Parker is equipped with the Ther­mal Pro­tec­tion Sys­tem (TPS): a sun shield 12cm thick and over 2m in di­am­e­ter.

“The TPS is made of su­per-thin sheets of a car­bon ma­te­rial a bit like what’s used in graphite golf clubs and ten­nis rack­ets,” says Fox. “Then there’s foam in-be­tween. This is cov­ered in a white alu­mina, like a ce­ramic. That re­flects a lot of the Sun’s light and the rest is ab­sorbed and used to keep the rest of the space­craft warm. It sounds ironic, but we’re al­most more con­cerned about things get­ting cold rather than get­ting hot.”

Be­hind the shield Parker needs to be heated be­cause the in­stru­ments op­er­ate best at room tem­per­a­ture. Though it might be scorch­ing in the sun­shine, it’s cool in the shade and with­out an at­mos­phere to move the heat around, tem­per­a­tures drop dra­mat­i­cally. Main­tain­ing this del­i­cate bal­ance re­quires Parker to stay pre­cisely aligned so that its in­stru­ments are al­ways in shadow. With an eight-minute de­lay be­tween Earth and the Sun there’s no way that Parker could be con­trolled from the ground.

“She has to look af­ter her­self,” says Fox. “If a sen­sor’s in the sun­light when it shouldn’t be, Parker has to fig­ure out what thruster it needs to fire to turn. The sheer amount of tech­nol­ogy that had to be de­vel­oped is why Parker has taken 60 years in de­vel­op­ment. It’s not a for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ment we’re go­ing to.”

Parker’s Ther­mal Pro­tec­tion Shield (TPS) un­der­goes vi­bra­tion tests

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