Innovative Irish Heatshield Protects Europe’s Sun-Bound Spacecraft

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft successfully launched from Florida on 10 February 2020. The aim of the mission was to study the Sun up close by taking high-resolution images of the Sun’s poles to understand the Sun-Earth connection. The mission was critical in addressing gaps in Solar System science to understand how the sun operates in the solar system and influences planets within it. This mission has allowed for the most advanced look at the Sun to date.

The mission has pushed the limits of space technology and provided a foundation for future space exploration in extreme environments. In preparing for this extreme environment, Irish company, Enbio, played a significant role. Enbio has developed a novel product called SolarBlack, a calcium phosphate preparation, which was applied to the outermost layer of the Solar Orbiter’s heatshield. SolarBlack is engineered to effectively absorb high degrees of heat, and will not decay by shedding layers, nor will it gradually turn into gas, no matter how much infrared and ultraviolet radiation it is exposed to. SolarBlack has a unique combination of durability, thermal stability, and electrical conductivity, allowing it to effectively be the first line of defence for the closest man-made object to the Sun.

This heatshield has been critical in allowing the mission to succeed, as the Solar Orbiter is subject to 13 times the amount of solar heating that regular satellites experience, and must operate in these hostile conditions for years.

Dr Tom Kelly, Director of Innovation & Competitiveness at Enterprise Ireland noted, “Ireland recently published National Space Strategy for Enterprise 2019-2025, which focuses on creating sustainable space-active businesses developing ground-breaking technologies for space and spinning out those technologies into commercial terrestrial markets including automotive, medical, advanced manufacturing and fintech. ENBIO’s novel coating technology has already been applied in rubber moulding applications.”

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