Why the Sun-Studying Parker Space Probe Won't Melt

It's heat shield makes the sun's corona feel like a day at the beach, literally.

parker space probe illustration
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

How can it even survive? That's a perfectly reasonable question to ask about the Parker Space Probe. After all, its traveling into the outer layer of the sun, known as the corona, which is going to be closer to a star than any manmade object in history.

The answer is that Parker has an amazing heat shield that will be handle just about anything, not to mention autonomous systems that will be constantly monitoring the Probe's environmental conditions. Here, let NASA explain:

To further understand how the Parker Space Probe can withstand the sun, we need to know the difference between temperature and heat. On Earth, there's a strong correlation between the two in the weather. But while temperature is a measurement of Fahrenheit, Kelvin, or Celsius, heat is technically just the transfer of energy. The sun's corona is millions of degrees in temperature, but the loose organization of plasma in the corona makes the heat manageable.

The heat shield will also help out. It's 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter and 4.5 inches (around 115 mm) thick. Made up of carbon composite foam sandwiched between two carbon plates, it's surprisingly lightweight at only 160 pounds. Underneath the shield, the instruments will scarcely feel the sun's heat. Their temperature will be 85 degrees F, meaning that these instruments will be cooler near the sun than a hot summer's day on Earth.

But not everything on the Parker will be behind the heat shield. The Faraday cup, for example, will conduct several scientific measurements, of ions and electron fluxes and flow angles from the solar wind. Made out of Titanium-Zirconium-Molybdenum, an alloy with a melting point 4,260 F (2,349 C), it's strong enough to take on the sun's corona by itself.

The probe also has several sensors on its body. When they detect sunlight, they inform the Parker's central computer. The computer will then position itself so the heat shield protects what needs protecting without any human intervention. There's also a cooling system of deionized water which can handle both the extreme cold and the extreme heat that the Parker will take on its journey.

As the Parker prepares to launch, it's getting its final assembly. The heat shield was just put in place.

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