NASA readies probe to touch the sun with 'cutting-edge heat shield'

It's getting hot in here, so protect all your probes.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

For the first time in human history, we are going to "touch the sun".

As NASA prepares for an Aug. 4 launch, it has unveiled a "cutting-edge heat shield", installed on June 27, that will keep the spacecraft from being burnt to a crisp.

Watch this: NASA's Parker Solar probe will touch the sun

The probe's mission will take it within 4 million miles of the sun, a region of space never before visited by a human-made spacecraft. For comparison's sake, the closest that Mercury ever gets to the sun is approximately 29 million miles. Getting that close to what is, essentially, a giant ball of fire requires some significant enhancements.

That's where the Thermal Protection System comes in.

The heat shield is a rounded "carbon-carbon composite sandwiching a lightweight carbon foam core." It is also sprayed with "a specially formulated white coating to reflect as much of the Sun's energy away from the spacecraft as possible."

Watch this: How NASA is creating air traffic control for drones

The shield will prevent the core of the spacecraft from being exposed to temperatures reaching nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit (or or roughly 1,370 degrees Celsius). Provided the shield does its job, NASA believes the instruments "will be kept at a relatively comfortable temperature of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit."

So in front of the shield: Fiery hellscape.

Behind the shield: Serene summer afternoon.

This is the first time in months that the Thermal Protection System has been attached to the probe after testing back in fall 2017. If all goes well and NASA launch in August, Parker will face the unfathomable heat of our solar system's star in an effort to sample the corona and teach us more about "the inner workings" of our sun.

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