Solar Orbiter, the probe that resulted from a collaboration between the US space agency and its European counterpart, was launched from Cape Canaveral in February 2020. Thanks to our colleagues at SyFy, we now know that it has just carried out its first revolution around the sun, i.e. the star it is supposed to study as closely as possible. With passages within 50 kilometers of our star, the $ 1.5 billion vehicle will operate in an extreme environment.
A unique heat shield
To protect the Solar Orbiter instruments from scorching heat and the effects of solar radiation, engineers gave them an animal black coating made from charred animal bones. This new type of heat shield called SolarBlack was developed by the Irish start-up ENBIO.
It was developed as part of ESA’s General Support Technology Program (GSTP). According to Barry Twomey, former head of research and development at ENBIO, the idea of using a charcoal-based coating obtained from the bones of burned animals stems from the fact that this material has relatively interesting properties.
A coating that can remove static electricity
Indeed, the SolarBlack has an excellent ability to absorb heat and light. In addition, it is electrically conductive, which avoids excess electrostatic charges and thus ensures that the probe is electrically neutral.
The charring is to prevent bone powder from boiling on the surface of the probe. SolarBlack protects approximately 1/5 of the surface of the Solar Orbiter. Note that animal black is nothing new as it has been used to filter water or as a pigment for centuries.
This photo shows the Solar Orbiter structural thermal model just before it left the Airbus Defense & Space facility in Stevenage, UK. Photo credit: By O. Usher (UCL MAPS), CC BY 2.0
SolarWhite, another technology being developed at ENBIO
Of course, the Solar Orbiter probe is the first spacecraft to use SolarBlack technology, but ENBIO intends to expand its collaboration so that its creation becomes a benchmark in the field of space exploration. Parts treated with a SolarBlack coating will therefore likely fly on other missions.
It should also be noted that the young Irish company has partnered with Airbus to develop SolarWhite. This is a crisp white coating designed to decorate surfaces that require sunlight reflection.