In August, NASA will launch a new interplanetary spacecraft to “touch” the Sun — and the vehicle just got its super durable heat shield for the trip. At the end of June, engineers installed the protective shield on the craft, dubbed the Parker Solar Probe, in Florida, where it’s currently being prepped for launch. The heat shield will keep the probe relatively cool as it encounters blistering temperatures near our Solar System’s star.

The Parker Solar Probe is meant to get closer to the Sun than any vehicle before it. The probe will sit just 4 million miles away from the Sun’s surface, where it will interact with the solar corona, or outer atmosphere. The goal is to learn more about how heat flows within this weird region of space. Every so often, particles within the corona get super heated and shoot out from the Sun in what’s known as solar wind. This stream of particles can mingle with Earth’s magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms that mess with our satellites and power grid and create auroras. So NASA is interested in figuring out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon to better understand how solar wind occurs.


The Parker Solar Probe with its heat shield
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

But if you’re going to the Sun’s corona, you need a way to keep cool. That’s where the heat shield comes in. The shield is light, weighing in at just 160 pounds, and is made up of two layers of carbon-carbon composite that surround a thick core made of foam….

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