Shortly after NASA was established in 1958, the nation’s top scientists compiled a list of missions they thought the brand-new space agency should pursue. The proposals were heady, considering at that point only three satellites had ever been launched. Researchers suggested an Earth-orbiting telescope that could detect the universe’s most distant stars, probes that would venture to the solar system’s other planets, an initiative to land humans on the surface of the moon.
With time, each of those dreams became a reality — the Hubble Space Telescope, the twin Voyager spacecraft, the Apollo program. All except one: an effort to get a close look at the sun, the source of Earth’s light and heat, as well as solar storms that could disrupt our satellites and fry our electric grid.
It took decades for the technology to protect scientific equipment from the sun’s ferocious rays to be invented.
On a recent morning, a spacecraft not unlike the one envisioned in 1958 sat in a sterile room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Its side panels were open to expose its inner workings — electronics boxes, a propulsion tank, instruments for measuring the sun’s magnetic field and capturing images of its tumultuous atmosphere. The spacecraft’s heat shield was encased in a separate container, emblazoned with large red lettering that admonished “HANDLE ONLY UNDER SUPERVISION” and “DO NOT EXPOSE TO DIRECT SUNLIGHT.”
Pointing out the warnings, engineer Curtis Wilkerson chuckled. This summer, the Parker Solar Probe will launch on a journey that will send it skimming through the sun’s atmosphere at a pace of 450,000 mph — fast enough to get from Washington to New York in about a second. It will fly within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface — seven times closer than any spacecraft has gotten before. That heat shield will not only be exposed to sunlight, it must withstand blasts of 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit — while simultaneously maintaining the instruments on the other side at roughly room temperature.
After 60 years of advances in science and technology, this craft will probe our star’s mysteries and monitor behavior that could affect everyone on Earth. “We will finally touch the sun,” Nicola Fox, the mission’s project scientist, likes to say.
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