Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

61 thoughts on “Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

  1. Think about the cycle here.
    An engineer determines a test for the equipment that will go to the sun.
    Another engineer designs the equipment that will test the equipment that will go to the sun.
    He determines a test for that equipment.
    Another engineer designs the…

    This would go on for such a long time because we’ve not even gotten close to the heat the sun can provide on earth, and simulations can only tell us so much. I guess this is inherent with pushing the limit, but the gravity of what must go on in this industry just really sank in for me.

    1. Beg pardon Sean Semple ?
      You don’t seem to understand the nature of (materials) engineering or its development last 40 years or the key associated Science disciplines. I think U missed essential schooling, sorry. Your statement “..we’ve not even gotten close to the heat the sun can provide on earth..” is completely False ! We’ve had satellites monitoring for decades and last 2 decades with very high accuracy as well as many well calibrated ground based sites recording wide spectra of Sol’s main heat output reaching surface of Earth which is predominantly in visible spectral range. It’s confirmed Sol’s output highly consistent for most part though it has been on a minor decline in approx last 20 years, it is due for a rise soon and of course with some variance. Heck it almost looks as if Sol ‘knows’ earth is retaining more heat since latter part of last century as it’s output since then has dropped to accomdate as if some Gaia like protection measure for earth ;-)

      Please review essentials re physics facts, design methodology, instrumentation and engineering in this field because at the moment you come across as “not up to speed” one bit :/

      Btw. Your nickname link goes to a Facebook page (error pasted below), can’t read who U are…
      “The page you requested cannot be displayed at the moment. It may be temporarily unavailable, the link you clicked on may be broken or expired, or you may not have permission to view this page.”

      1. I understood that statement quite differently, with Sean saying that we don’t have such intense heat sources on earth as the sun would be from that distance. I’m not sure that is true either, but your long rant seems to be based completely on a misunderstood sentence.

        1. Perhaps jpa, if and only if Sean Semple had not opened with a substantive emotional ‘rant’ on his obtuse ill thought engineering preface in the first place which comes across as an uninformed outburst casting engineering with general prejudice – that alone should have told you something clear in terms of his intent as primarily uneducated emotional reaction. The fact that set the context for his not understanding materials technology and subsequently state of the art in respect of earth radiation sources Eg lasers etc shows his subsequent paragraph deep in ignorance.

          Sean Semple does have a facet of point about simulations but, we do have this thing called instrumentation with key Physics and math which, within tight error bars too, can easily determine the radiation the craft would be subject to given its planned trajectory and applied to algorithms with simulation bounds. If you and Sean Semple were focused on the million plus degrees closer to the (so called) surface of the sun then that’s another matter – it would be facile to critique that since the craft will go no-where near that for any length of time if at all. This doesn’t preclude chaotic mass ejections or side effects from magnetic influences on the path and even then Sean Semple’s comment betrays lack of training/education in the field and negligible understand on the confluence of materials, trajectorys, instrumentation, speed of transit, math and physics of radiation emitted from a sphere. He got lost in hubris betraying prejudice at the start – isn’t that obvious etc

          Odd you object to my detailed comment jpa as the earlier simpler comment by was easily far less polite and more worthy of ambit chagrin from you. My claimed ‘rant’ is thought through, though I concede an aspect of my comment touched on the issue of radiative transfer as if Sean Semple had in mind to critique engineers who work on climate change issues ie. Sean Semple has the pattern of vocabulary consistent with emotional climate change deniers who have missed out on key education in high school radiative transfer – so far never proven false. The ambit prejudice professional engineers get from the likes of the Sean Semples of the world betray lack of some people’s psychological and intellectual equipment to address these sorts of fairly straightforward engineering issues – with this sentence an obvious ‘rant’ if you like. Nice link on your nick btw, that precludes significantly you being a Sean Semple clone, criminology 101 ;-)

          1. I guess I misinterpreted Sean’s comment or something. To me it just seemed like the guy was just making commentary about how there is a significant amount of depth to these experiments that he took for granted perhaps. There really is no need to insult someone’s intelligence over comments like his, so maybe just chill out a bit there broseph.

          2. Another bite :-)
            Hey you might be right and you could have hit the nail squarely on the head substantially at earliest cementing your opinion by offering; specifics, precision and analysis At The Time but, then why would you as you didn’t bother since all you have is a facile unconnectable claim ie. nothing to support it at the time. Lost opportunity to be complete in purpose at that moment, too late to augment though you might try creative fabrication for the heck of it and see how you go as it might enjoy imagination finding a resonance with a truth whether hidden or otherwise. Imagine I had not replied to you here then what would you have achieved other than spreading the same manner of simple idle prejudice Sean Semple has on the engineering cycle in his first para, capisce ?
            IOW: Please clarify which sentence(s) of mine is “emotional” and of what form of satire or condescension or was I too subtle if it doesnt jump out at ya easily to match your intent ?
            In any case you missed my para conceding Sean had a point…
            Hey maybe this is all Mike Massen’s alter ego AI script in respect of trialing a novel type of linguistic bot to engage in debate or dialectic for the hell of it or as means to collect data to advance that bot’s core AI responsiveness index and if so then what metric could be applied to further such a hypothesis by simple enquiry or do we care or what does it matter in the final analysis anyway ?
            Cest la vie :D

          1. Cool Admin Tobo
            Another bite, you also might be right but, hey what linguistic or causal evidence or any sort of palpable conjunction offers any such proposition to be tested such as by the scientific method so your simplistic claim can offer you a semblance of comfort and security it was worth for your sense of self making such a claim ?
            Perhaps lurking behind a moderately novel nickname is your only security offering protection from repercussions you cannot handle, I guess it depends what meds you are on. There are correlations and vocabulary patterns which offer probabilities commensurate with that paradigm. So if I had not replied to your post also, then what would you have achieved with your one line blurt and those exclamation marks too – did that make you feel better perhaps :D
            Frankly I’ve never found value or relief in operating on a forum behind a nickname no matter how creative it might be Unless that nick is easily connected with a real person not a front for mindless prejudice. Reason should be obvious its a ego separation issue distancing cause and effect and managing various types of guilt and negative patterns of thought hence the meds. I feel sorry for many who blurt prejudice behind anonymous nicks as it makes it easier for their psyche to fall into patterns that eat at integrity correlated with diminishing ability to handle complexity as they age – yet another form of lumbering (bio-chemical) insecurity partly rooted in nutritional deficiencies…
            Also Cest La Vie :D

          2. Could be the case. Both names have the same amount of letters (10), same amount of words (2), same amount of syllables (3), same pattern of syllables (1st word/1 syllable, 2nd word/2 syllables), 8 of the 10 letters are the same ( s, e, a, n, m).

          3. “shewd” really surely people are not so facile ?
            Please add something pertinent to the thread, obvious that you carl leitz have no name link and Joshua Lind’s to a blind facebook “The link you followed may have expired, or the Page may only be visible to an audience that you aren’t in.” ie useless ?
            To help you guys out and get a life:-
            I suggest look at the more far more useful and more complete approaches such as proper linguistic analyses, there are heaps of apps with proper methods, so knock yourself out then those with proclivity to robotically follow conspiracy patterns would have something more definitive than one too simple comments which dont augment, dont add anything, blind alleys, useless… An obvious sign of this:-

            Vocabulary patterns all too common and the simple level Joshua Lind tries is woefully incomplete and why does he bother anyway – it adds nothing to the discussion, has nowhere to go ie achieve nothing only useless idle noise.

            I’m on several subscribed paywall sites also under my own name though I used to post a joke or obverse comment now and then under a nick which is even listed under my profile – LoL – I did this to rattle the cages of new subscribers now and then on stock trading forums like HotCopper but, in all cases have disclosed my shareholdings too in all cases :-)

            For the record the only nickname I’ve used is “nichevl” on YouTube and happily confirm my real name on there too when asked on that as public too. Besides there is nothing to achieve for anyone making an ambiguous borderline derogatory post in the very profession I am trained in under one name then making a critique under another, not my pattern of behaviour as history shows. I have never seen the poster’s name before. Given the noise, simplicity and relation its far more probable there is a relation between Sean Semple, carl leitz and Joshua Lind but, for what – waste time for them whilst I get practice improving my typing speed when I’m on a roll, so thanks :-)
            Same for my posts long ago on also under my own name. Don’t post on there anymore as there are too many numb nuts adding very low IQ noise offering nothing useful either and wasting time making unsupportable claims of physics and chemistry and just can’t handle simple issues – worst was the climate change/radiative transfer issue – very messy politically charged repeating mindless statements same as trump – ugh :/
            Do better guys, intelligent discourse, something pertinent, push the technical boundaries instead far more interesting :-)

          4. So after you post “shrewd” carl leitz and my observation I look up google and find this:-
            Has his name and incomplete part of my comment too, looks like an incomplete Ai attempt to craft some index…
            here am I on facebook and

            There are people called Sean Semple on facebook, since you bothered with a one liner why not check em all out, cheers

    1. There was a thing where you could get your name added to a list of names that would be placed on the Parker probe, on an SD card.

      One of the links is to a Hackaday blog entry about it.

      1. This seems incredibly pointless…

        SD card data retention in usually rated for 1-10 years AT ROOM TEMP. 10 for the first complete write, 1 for a moderately used card. Industrial flash NAND used in enterprise/industrial environments is usually rated for 3 months at 55C. The temps in the probe are expected to be about 30C, so retention should be 10y if it where mounted inside. However, the SD card is mounted in a plaque on the underside of the high gain antenna, outside the probe where temps may be higher, cutting into that data retention time.

        So assuming the SD card physically survives its little jaunt around the sun, it most certainly wont be holding its data for very long, maybe a few years after the probes expected 7 ish year mission, but even that seems like a stretch. Cosmic and solar radiation may kill it sooner….

        Sure its all in the name of fun and getting the public involved, but there are better way to store data long term. M-Disc comes to mind and its rated for at least 200C and guaranteed for at least 1000ys. This whole thing with the sd card is the equivalent of asking everybody to write notes for a time capsule and then tossing it into a volcano.

    1. If the Perseid meteor shower is happening, you can bet your rent money on it!
      Arrgh. Those suckers have caused it to be overcast or rainy here, when they pass through, for years now.
      Yes it was cloudy here again this time.

  2. Fifteen. Only one astronaut has died because of an accident. Canadian geese, trainer jet. It would have even done in Sully.

    Seven died and seven more because of these chicken and egg engineering testing problems. An empty styrofoam cup can damage this heat shield.

    Flash drives have been found to be forensically true after 400F or more fire exposure. When someone crashes into Parker doing a Sol slingshot in the future they will know who to blame for parking it there.

    1. I would have to highly doubt any mission planner would calculate in an intercept with the satellite when doing a slingshot. We have highly precise orbital data on just about every piece of junk floating in space, so why would anyone be at risk of smashing into a satellite so far from earth?

  3. The article was just bad. We’ve had 60 years of developing heat shields for manned and unmanned re-entry vehicles like MIRV’s.. It would not be hard to retask that technology to act as a sun shield.

    The way Sean goes on, you’d think he never heard of the Space Shuttle with it’s high temp heat resistant tiles.

      1. There is no suggestion copying 30 year old technology is proposed. Many significant advances were made during and after that but, sadly were never applied to the space shuttle even latter era when it was flying which would have easily avoided the Columbia re-entry disaster. It was a collection of inertia like management issues which led to that not tech alone. Management systems as well as understanding and implementation of high temperature material properties have advanced significantly in last 10 years alone…

          1. Hmm thanks Megol,
            In respect of your 1st sentence I don’t propose any particular technology at this point those more adept at collating state of the art options which have been selected as best fit know far more than me – I am not in that business – though I do understand the competitive material properties for the task at hand. My intent was responding to Genki where he implied zerg implied heat shields of the re-entry type would be pertinent. My retort then offered that its not helpful to copy 30 yr old tech (as if implying that I accepted what Genki wrote as valid critique). I can point to the issue the craft will not need the type of ablative short period tech of early manned missions or the robustness against heat/friction losses the shuttle encountered but, which is still short term.
            daid303 was spot on with the best point and I can add its a balancing act and might be tricky if were not for the fact that behind the craft in shadow from the sun you can pump out as much radiative transfer as your tech can achieve without problem as its effectively feeding that emission into a black body – the only problem would be if there is some close by luminous ejection emitting back to the rear of the craft its own radiative transfer Or gaseous cloud offering thermal resistivity.

            In respect of your 2nd sentence Megol,
            Although I did some metallurgy and refractory materials whilst doing mech decades ago I have followed up a bit sporadically for a potential project. I guess we are possibly going a bit beyond carbon-carbon and the temp at which it sublimates more or less, hence refractory materials at worst highest temp exposure. Suffice to say if you can ‘redirect’ a crystalline structure’s atomic bond perturbation from imparted thermal energy into directing that away with increasing (photon) emission behind as the material approaches its dissociation/melt curve from the front then there might well be sweet spots as it acts as if it is a self powered transducer. ie Visible spectra mostly to front as much reflected as possible remainder absorbed as heat but, in so doing that heat causes bond vibration in a lattice emitting photons ‘out the back’, then it could achieve some neat insulating/redirecting effects. Candidates would seem to be existing refractory materials with selected dopants within crystalline structures of Silicon, Carbon, Tungsten, Osmium perhaps layered with Nickel/Copper super-alloys for regional high thermal conductivity also in root like structures conducting heat but, retained in a structure so melting wont cause loss. I recall Calcium and Strontium having some potential to form such structures again with Osmium. The problem is protecting all these from ionic corrosion as the region approached likely high in reactive ions. In any case a single material won’t cut it, it would have be atomicall layered with the interstitial structure offering transparency at some parts of the spectra and where opaque translating that heat to the frequency most easily redirected – perhaps by application of a resonant electric field – photonic/phonon peltier like effect…
            But, hey this is just idle uneducated speculation more consistent with Scifi than anything practical short term ;-)

      2. It’s possible they will last far longer. The reason the heat shields fail on re-entry is the friction and oxygen. Once Parker has gotten close enough to the Sun that it reaches the same temperatures, it won’t burn or degrade like it would in an oxygen rich atmosphere while being subjected to insane pressure swings and air friction. Out in space they should just get nice and toasty.

        1. Frankly lots of heat and vacuum is probably even worse…the whole reason incandescent lamps do NOT use vacuum, but a low pressure gas filling is to capture back the atoms of tungsten that were ripped off the filament due to electron emission…
          In an atmosphere, there’s always something to conduct the heat away. In space, all cooling has to be done by radiating, which by nature requires high temps. to be effective.

          p.s. friction has little to do with re-entry heating. Most of the work is caused by the air being compressed due to supersonic speeds!

          1. Good points AKA the A
            Also that compressed wavefront becomes a layered potentially chaotic plasma which is highly corrosive to the shield not necessarily laminar in flow around the shield either. One would expect where the craft is going it wouldn’t be exposed to as much plasma *while* the craft’s momentum imparts its orbital energy to any relatively motionless gases it encounters then you would have friction or rather ionised atoms impacting the shield at a large delta V – which in other words might be ‘perceived’ by the shield as friction. Not my best wording getting late too much nice vino…

    1. Wow, if only these scientists realised they had a perfect solution already before they spent years of research and millions of dollars developing something new for absolutely no reason whatsoever!

      Really dude?

    2. Re-entry heat shields is a totally different issue. They need to be active for a short while, which makes Ablative Heat Shields a pretty valid option:
      And you have the Atmosphere to give off heat towards.

      This probe however, has to withstand heat for a long time, as it will keep “collecting” heat when nearing the sun, with nothing to cool it down other then radiating heat away. No convection

  4. take the heat or not, its prob a win-win for nasa. if the heat ruins it, nasa will likely play it as “SPECTACULAR FLAME-OUT…!” Heroic nasa did its best! Their relentless public relations machine will play it for all they can squeeze outa it. Keep those blank checks for nasa’s spending comin’ !

    1. NASA has a yearly budget determined by congress that actually got cut this year. No blank checks here. NASA actually has to fight to justify every single project it wants to include in each years budget. Congress has been particularly harsh on them since the fall of the Soviet Union. NASA contracts are pretty bloated, but most civilian contracts gain bloat, even the ones that don’t involve the government.

  5. AHhhh NASA, the best group of people who know how to waste money. What do they “think” they need to know about the sun? Its hot and bright. You can find that out by going outside, cost…. Free.
    If you want to fix the waste there. Have it crowd funded, and we will see just how important these things are.

  6. This article has some of the most facile comments I’ve seen for a Hackaday article. Its just embarrassing to read them.
    I value the comments section for inspiration, explanation, humour and pointers to other information. If you just want to criticise or troll people then find somewhere else to do it.

  7. I noticed a tidbit of flawed thinking in this article. The fasteners that typically have to be glued into place for the turbulent launch–go ahead and use epoxy! The glue only has to last through launch. Let it melt. Don’t overthink it!

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