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 3,000 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.
“But first,” Wilkerson said, “we have to get it to the launchpad,”
Wilkerson is a systems assurance manager with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the Parker Solar Probe. It’s his job to ensure the scientists and engineers who work on the spacecraft follow the protocols in place to protect it. Metal objects must be demagnetized so they don’t affect the instruments. Technicians must wear hairnets, gloves and ground bracelets that dispel static electricity so they won’t give the spacecraft a shock. Even ordinary notebooks are banned — instead, visitors are handed sheets of special paper designed not to shed microscopic debris. Harsh though the environment around the sun may be, the biggest threat the probe will encounter in its lifetime is a careless human.