How to Prepare a Spacecraft to Fly Through the Sun’s Atmosphere

The Parker Solar Probe will fly closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history, so it better be able to handle the heat.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Image: NASA

By this time next year, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will have launched and made its its first pass within approximately 15 million miles of the Sun, roughly 10 million miles closer than any spacecraft in history.

By 2025, the probe will have pass within 4 million miles of the Sun's surface, but before it’s launched the Parker Space Probe needs to undergo some serious environmental tests to make sure it can handle the heat. So for the last two months, NASA engineers have used huge speakers, massive ovens and a laser array in an attempt to break the spacecraft.

The Parker Solar Probe has been under development for 8 years, but starting in November, NASA engineers began subjecting the craft to environmental tests, which are the true measures of how the craft will perform in space.

The first test was a vibration test at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, which involved shaking the probe intensely to ensure it could survive the rigors of launching atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Next, it was moved to NASA’s Goddard Space Center, where it was blasted with a suite of 6-foot tall speakers that reached sound levels of 150 decibels. This is about what the probe will experience during lift off on the Delta Heavy.

NASA engineers move the Parker Solar Probe into the acoustic testing facility. Image: NASA

Surviving the launch is only half the battle for the Parker probe, however. Once it’s in orbit, the craft will not only have to withstand intense solar radiation, but also harvest ultraviolet light to power its onboard components. To test the probe’s solar panels, NASA engineers used an array of purple lasers to individually illuminate the 44 strings of solar cells that will power the spacecraft.

One of the Delta Heavy boosters that will carry the Parker Space Probe to orbit arrives at Kennedy Space Center in August. Image: NASA

After successfully passing its trial by laser, the probe’s heat shield was moved to a thermal vacuum chamber. Since the spacecraft will technically be flying through the Sun’s outer atmosphere, it will be subjected to temperatures around 2,500 Fahrenheit, more than enough to destroy the onboard computer.

NASA engineers move the heat shield into the thermal vacuum chamber at Goddard. Image: NASA

To prevent this problem, NASA developed a “revolutionary” carbon heat shield that will keep the probe’s electronics at room temperature as it passes through the Sun’s scorching atmosphere. To test this, NASA is currently subjecting the heat shield to the freezing cold and blazing hot temperatures in a vacuum chamber to make sure it will protect the craft during the most critical parts of the mission.

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If all goes well, the Parker Space Probe will deliver unprecedented insights into the dynamics of solar wind, a stream of charged particles that is responsible for everything from auroras on Earth to the destruction of the atmosphere on Mars. Charting the dynamics of this phenomenon is crucial to a better understanding of the sun’s relationship to the rest of the solar system.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that by November 2018, the Parker Solar Probe would pass within 4 million miles of the Sun. This pass will actually occur in 2025. In 2018, the probe will pass within approximately 15 million miles of the sun, still 10 million miles closer than any spacecraft in history. Motherboard regrets the error.