NASA's 2018 Mission to the Sun Begins Testing Spacecraft for 2,600-Degree Heat and Extreme Illumination

Later this year, NASA will launch its very first spacecraft designed to “touch the sun,” skimming the surface of the star we rely on. But while the sun is life-sustaining here on Earth, it’s pretty brutal up-close and personal. That means that before the Parker Solar Probe launches this summer, NASA wants to be absolutely positive the spacecraft can survive both its journey and its destination. Such certainty will require extensive testing before the agency can set its creation free.

Those tests are happening now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where the probe arrived in early November and will remain until late March, when it will leave for its Florida launch site. (If you’re wondering how you move a spacecraft, the answer is very carefully.) The spacecraft’s launch window opens on July 31.

“We’ll test all the way up ‘til they take the spacecraft away from us,” Jim Kinnison, the mission’s system engineer who works at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, told Newsweek. “The more you test, the more you exercise the system, the more you’ll find things.”

01_16_parker_probe_laser What the Parker Solar Probe may look like approaching the sun. NASA

Next on their agenda—happening today—is putting the probe into what’s called a thermal vacuum chamber for two and a half months. That test will confirm the spacecraft is up to handling the intense conditions it will find at its destination. In particular, the spacecraft will be exposed to a huge amount of illumination, almost 500 times what we receive here on Earth.

Most of the probe’s machinery hides from all that light tucked behind four and a half inches of carbon. When the side of the shield facing the sun is exposed to 2,600 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, the far side will clock just under 600. The shield has already taken its turn in the three-story tall thermal vacuum chamber.

But 600 degrees Fahrenheit is still awfully toasty. The probe has a second system designed to keep it cool, which is basically a traveling refrigerator that dissipates that heat into space. “In terms of technology, that was the biggest thing that we had to develop,” Kinnison said. “It’s very difficult to survive this environment.”

The probe has also been shaken to make sure it can withstand vibrations produced during the launch. A separate set of tests, called operational tests, ensure the spacecraft can drive itself and fix glitches on its own when it can’t communicate with Earth. And it has been pummeled by lasers to make sure its solar panels can keep the spacecraft running—although unlike the “science fiction laser shooting out” scenario you may be imagining, Kinnison says, those lasers aren’t visible to the naked eye.

These tests are just the final step to the long process of making sure the probe stays in good enough condition to do its science. Kinnison says that the team has spent a decade thinking about how to run the spacecraft through its paces. Over the years, they’ve also tested miniature models of pieces of the spacecraft and tested those, gradually building up to a model of the entire thing informed by the latest knowledge of materials science.

All that experience gives the scientists confidence about the spacecraft’s resistance to extreme heat without actually having to replicate those conditions here on Earth, which would be challenging, to say the least.

Kinnison says that so far, all of the testing has been going smoothly. “There’s always something you find in testing that you need to understand,” he said. But right now, he says, everything looks like it should be ready to go for the July 31 launch window.