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NASA's Solar Orbiter stays cool thanks to a special coating of charred bones

By Jeff Spry

NASA and the European Space Agency's intrepid Solar Orbiter has made the toasty trip to perform experiments on our warming star. 

The $1.5 billion solar probe blasted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last February and has just accomplished a first revolution around the Sun as sensitive instruments focus on capturing data on its solar winds and corona temperatures.

The 3,970-pound Solar Orbiter will conduct experiments from a distance of 26 million miles at its closest point, where its complement of scientific tools will stare at the Sun's polar regions and learn how the sun creates and controls its heliosphere.

solar orbiter 4

Shielding the spacecraft from the scorching heat and radiation effects of the Sun's rays (13 times more than experienced on Earth) is a powdered coating of charred bones courtesy of the Irish start-up firm, ENBIO. Their remarkable covering is called SolarBlack and its application ensures that Solar Orbiter won't melt into slag during its close encounters with the churning orange inferno.

Hoping to aid the space agencys' mission and protect the sun-studying spacecraft, the recently-formed, Dublin-based biotech company previously designed synthetic bone coatings for medical and dental implants and presented their idea to use synthetic bone in shielding the titanium probe. 

But before ENBIO's artificial bone material could be delivered and coated, CNN learned that it first had to be charred and blackened as to not affect SolarBlack's heat absorption abilities and to keep it from boiling on the probe's skin.

"I tried to color the bone powder to make it black, but it didn't work too well," John O'Donoghue, the founder of ENBIO, told CNN. "I remembered reading as a kid that in cave art, people used charcoal and, in some cases, [burnt] animal bones, because the end of it would be like a crayon and they could draw on walls." 

Solar Orbiter 2

SolarBlack envelops approximately one-fifth of Solar Orbiter's total surface area, and guards its intricate components at a comfortable room temperature as it soaks in heat up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

ENBIO has also teamed up with Airbus to develop SolarWhite, a special bright-white coating that blankets other areas of satellites and spacecraft where reflected sunlight is required.

As Solar Orbiter moves deeper into its multi-year mission and maneuvers ever closer to the Sun, ENBIO's powdered black bones will continue to be the first line of defense and should become a vital protector for future spacecraft as they explore our solar system and galaxy.