The Solar Orbiter, a NASA and ESA joint mission, has come closer to the Sun than any spacecraft ever. But will it face a similar fate as Icarus?
The Solar Orbiter spacecraft, a NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) joint venture, has created history! The spacecraft has come closer to the Sun than any other craft ever. The spacecraft completed two years in space last month and now it has reached as close as 48 million kilometers from the Sun. While the distance feels a lot, it should be noted that Venus is at twice the distance of the Solar Orbiter and its surface temperature can go as high as 462 degree Celsius. As the spacecraft continues to observe the Sun from a distance never seen before, it remains to be seen whether it will face a similar fate as Icarus, a character in Greek mythology, who flew too close to the Sun only to see his wings burn up and him to perish.
However, it does not seem that the Solar Orbiter is as ‘foolhardy’ as Icarus was, given the list of accomplishments it has already racked up. In just two year’s time, the NASA and ESA spacecraft has flown through the tail of a comet, flown by Venus and captured the most detailed photographs of the Sun ever taken. And fitted with the best technology humans have access to, the orbiter continues to unravel the secrets of the Sun.
NASA Solar Orbiter replicates Icarus, only successfully
The solar orbiter flying too close to the Sun is definitely a reminder of the tragedy that befell the Greek hero Icarus when he defied his father Daedalus and used the wax-made wings created by him to soar high in the sky. As he got higher, the wings melted and Icarus fell to his own death. While the Sun is definitely capable of emitting extremely high heat, the Solar Orbiter seems to be doing just fine.
How the Solar Orbiter beats the heat
At the heart of this technology is the heat shield. The heat shield is a 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide sandwich-like structure. The front layer has thin sheets of titanium foil, followed by a honeycomb-patterned aluminum base, covered in more foil insulation. The nearly 10-inch gap in the shield funnels heat out to space. A smaller, second gap lies between the inner slice and the spacecraft.