So maybe you’ve heard the old joke. Two astronauts are talking, and one says that he’s going on an expedition to the Sun. The other says that’s impossible, you’ll burn up. And the first one says, we’ve figured that out – we’re going at night!
But now, there really IS an expedition on the way to the Sun. And this time, the space scientists have figured out a better solution for getting there intact. (Even though there are no astronauts on this mission, a space probe that’s fried to a crisp – that’s not much help to anybody.)
The secret would make Captain America proud – it’s a shield. Specifically, a heat shield made of carbon foam and carbon-composite material. And when you see the words “carbon composite”, you know that petrochemicals are part of it.
The Parker Space Probe will be the first-ever, well, anything (at least anything made by humanity) to fly through the Sun’s corona, or “atmosphere”. Including, maybe, an explanation of why the Sun’s atmosphere is hotter than its surface.
And while knowledge is always good in itself, learning more about the Sun’s magnetic field and the solar wind, is also useful for us here at home, since our life here, is affected by events there.
We won’t get any of that knowledge immediately, of course – even though it will be the fastest space craft ever (430,000 mph fast). The Sun is more than 90 million miles away. But by early November, Parker will make its first pass by the Sun (it’s scheduled for seven fly-bys in all, each one closer than the one before).
And it will be hot. So the heat is designed to protect against temperatures up to 2,500° F hot. Which IS hot. So advanced materials, combining carbon fibers and petrochemical-derived polymers, make strong, lightweight and yes, heat-resistant materials possible. Those materials are as essential to space exploration, as they are becoming to our cars, our homes, even our musical instruments.
Now even with those solar eclipse glasses (assuming you saved them), you won’t be able to watch the Parker Space Probe cozy up to the Sun. But you can watch (or re-watch) its launch. NASA has that for us:
(and because it was a night launch, it’s quite dramatic looking).
And that joke? Yeah, it really WAS a night launch, to us on Earth. But in space, the Sun is always out – so they’ll be needing that heat shield.