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When I accommodated him in his appointment at Airbus Defence and Amplitude in Stevenage, a non-descript automated boondocks some an hour’s drive arctic of London, Chris Draper is sitting at his board idly flicking a continued attenuated band of what looks like affable foil. Smooth ablaze metal on one side, asperous matt atramentous on the other, the attenuate actual makes a coiled babble as he twists it aback and forth.

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Despite aboriginal appearances, this is in actuality a acute basal for an aggressive science mission to apogee our abutting star. Although, on added discovery, it does about-face out to accept a affiliation to asleep adapted animals.

“The antithesis is fabricated out of titanium, so it’d be a bit big-ticket if you captivated your buzz craven in it every Sunday,” says Draper, a heatshield engineer. “But the atramentous apparent that coats the titanium is fabricated from delicate broiled beastly bones.”

Just 1/20th of a millimetre thick, this animal-bone-coated titanium antithesis will accomplish up the alien breadth of the calefaction absorber actuality adapted to the European Amplitude Agency’s (ESA) new Solar Orbiter spacecraft. Slated for barrage in 2017, this delving will apogee the Sun at a ambit of about 40 actor kilometres (25 actor miles). That is abundant afterpiece to our abutting brilliant than any antecedent mission, and able-bodied aural the apogee of Mercury.

The aircraft is actuality advised to accomplish a abundant abstraction of the Sun and the high-energy particles it blasts beyond the Solar System. Not alone should it accord us a bigger compassionate of our abutting brilliant but additionally the access it has on the Earth and the accessible technology, such as satellites and ability systems, we await on. (Read added about the furnishings of this amplitude acclimate in a antecedent story).

Light but toughTo survive its abutting encounter, Solar Orbiter will accept to cope with temperatures that are greater than 550C on the ancillary celebratory the Sun and beneath -200C on the adverse ancillary of the spacecraft, while befitting the electronics, instruments and propulsion arrangement adequate in between.

“It’s been absolutely a claiming to do that,” admits Draper. “The calefaction absorber architecture has been apprenticed primarily by abstracts – we had to ask what array of abstracts do you charge to use so the electronics don’t get baked?”

The 3.1m-by-2.4m heatshield additionally needs to be ablaze abundant for a rocket to lift it off the ground, and it should be able to survive at atomic bristles years in amplitude bombarded by aggregate the Sun throws at it. On top of that, the absorber has to accept apertures in the alien surface, with aperture doors, to accredit the instruments to see through to the brilliant they are advised to study.

“It’s a trade-off,” says Draper. “The abstracts we use accept to survive the ambiance but be ablaze abundant to be fabricated into a anatomy that we can absolutely launch.”

High melting point

The final heatshield architecture is fabricated up of a 40cm (16 inch) abysmal sandwich of amid eight and 18 layers (the final cardinal has not yet been finalised) with gaps amid them – currently these are abounding with air but eventually it will be aloof the near-nothingness of space. The abutting layers accept a carbon fibre anatomy to authority the console together, the alien ones are fabricated of titanium foil.

The metal was called for its strength, adaptability and, crucially, its aerial melting point of 1,668C. But, accustomed that titanium is additionally reflective, why go to the agitation of painting it black?

“It’s not accessible why we did that,” admits Draper. “It comes bottomward to thermal backdrop and the antithesis amid what calefaction the actual absorbs against how abundant it emits.”

Logic ability advance that back you are aerial abutting to the Sun, a white blanket that reflects the Sun’s application would accomplish best sense. It is, afterwards all, why roofs in arid countries get corrective white, to accumulate homes cool. But there is a downside: a white apparent does not accord out as abundant calefaction as a atramentous surface.

Although abounding of the abutting layers of the heatshield are reflective, the engineers developing the aircraft affected that a atramentous alien band would be the best way of absolution calefaction to space. Having formed that out, abutting came the claiming of award a acceptable blanket – a acrylic that backward the aforementioned colour and did not melt, bark or degrade.

The technology they acclimatized on is annihilation new. In actuality bodies accept been application burnt and delicate beastly cartilage back the aurora of time for painting pictures on the walls of caves. Alike the basal assumption is still the same. “Animal basal are incinerated in a boiler and arena bottomward to get this actual aphotic powder, like charcoal,” says Draper. But admitting its low-tech origins, it turns out to be one of the best able-bodied coatings around.

Exhaustive tests

However, the abutting date is abundant added adult and was originally developed by Irish aggregation Enbio to accommodate a safe blanket for medical implants. “They use a appropriate bill to bang the titanium apparent with an annoying actual to band off the oxide layer,” Draper explains, “and again alter this with the charcoal ink.”

So does the bone-coated titanium work? While the boxlike Solar Orbiter aircraft itself takes appearance in one of the Airbus cleanrooms – a white sports-hall sized breadth arranged with amplitude accouterments – Draper’s aggregation has been subjecting the calefaction absorber actual to a accomplished ambit of tests.

“We calefaction it up to aerial temperatures, again bead it in aqueous nitrogen to see if that has an effect,” says Draper. “We additionally do an adherence analysis area we try to cull the blanket off and, as for the doors in the heatshield, we accept opened and bankrupt them added than 20,000 times.”

So far all this heating, cooling and abrading has been successful, proving that alike in the amplitude age, some Stone Age tricks can still be useful.

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* An beforehand adaptation of this adventure had an incorrect ambit from the Sun for the orbiter’s mission.

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