There is no shortage of innovation in NASA’s mission roster. Whether you are landing on Mars or entering orbit around an alien planet, missions to space require mind-blowing technological advances. This year the most ingenious spacecraft accolade (and our award for Innovation of the Year) goes to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. This spacecraft is going to the most deadly place in the solar system—our sun. And it’s not just getting kind of close: as NASA likes to say, it’s going to “kiss” our hellishly hot host star.
No space agency has ever sent a spacecraft so close to the sun before. Previous attempts have inched as near as 25 million miles from the surface, but Parker Solar Probe will orbit the sun at an average distance of only 4 million miles. In order to do this and not melt into a gooey pile of metal, it is equipped with a revolutionary heat shield. The surface of the sun averages around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but Parker Solar Probe won’t get that close. The team expects the spacecraft to reach temperatures of around 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit at most during its 6.5-year mission, and it’s built to beat that heat without a problem.
The heat shield is made up of a carbon-carbon material, similar to what is found in some golf clubs, but this carbon has been heated up. The shield also features a special carbon foam that is made up of 97% air. With a nice coating of white paint on the front to deflect the sun’s rays, this spacecraft is all set to survive an otherwise deadly environment. And all of that protection is only 8 feet in diameter, 4.5 inches thick, and 160 pounds.
The mission designers had to wait decades for the technology to become available. After all, if you’re going this close to the sun and your heat shield isn’t up to the task, the rest of the spacecraft doesn’t stand a chance.
And it’s not just the mission or the thermal protection system that makes it worthy of PopSci’s highest Best of What’s New honor: Parker Solar Probe is also outfitted with some new autonomous software. Because the spacecraft has such a long journey—6.5 years to get into the right orbit—the team had to make sure that Parker could correct its position, or “attitude,” if it shifted a bit too much to either side. The heat shield’s protective design is all for naught if it isn’t pointed toward the sun, so engineers added sensors to detect heat in inappropriate spots and correct flight angles as needed.
Since launching on August 12, Parker Solar Probe has already passed the sun at a distance of only 15 million miles, beating all previous records. It also happened to be going 213,000 miles per hour at the time, making it the fastest spacecraft ever. It won’t give up the record anytime soon, either: when Parker lowers itself closer to the sun around 2025, it will be zooming around the star at a dizzying 430,000 miles per hour.
Understanding the sun’s weather and behavior is important because large solar events have a direct impact on Earth, as well as our satellites in orbit. This revolutionary mission sets out to solve some of the biggest mysteries we have about our giant fusion reactor in the sky. Parker is the clear standout of BOWN 2018: It’s a spacecraft that will be beating records—and changing entire fields of research—for years to come.