JHU Materials Science and Engineering PhD Candidate Helps NASA’s Parker Solar Probe “touch the sun”

February 18, 2020
Parker Solar Probe

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will operate in orbit around the Sun for the next six years, eventually bringing it within 4 million miles, the closest any spacecraft has gotten to Earth’s star. Image thanks to NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

Steve Thibault could pass for a professor, striding through the corridors of Maryland Hall with his professional dress, friendly smirk and the experience of a successful career. Thibault is Chief Engineer in the Space Exploration Sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). But he’s also a doctoral candidate studying in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

In his 14th year with APL, Thibault has had many roles including Spacecraft Systems Engineer for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, a robotic spacecraft on a pioneering mission to get closer to the Sun than ever before. He was involved in the spacecraft’s final development, helped with preparations for its launch in 2018, and on-orbit commissioning.

Parker Solar Probe is collecting critical information about the Sun’s corona, or outermost atmospheric layer. Named for the University of Chicago’s solar astrophysicist, Eugene Parker, who first theorized how stars like the Sun create and put out energy, Parker Solar Probe is collecting data about “solar wind.” By studying these streams of charged particles the mission’s goal is to give scientists the ability to forecast major space-weather events that could potentially impact equipment (power sources, radio devices, communications and weather monitoring satellites, etc.) in orbit and on Earth, critical to everyday life.

From the red-shifted solar cells making up its solar arrays, and the development of structural materials able to handle launch load to the protocols used to keep the spacecraft contaminant-free, “every aspect of materials is involved in what we do,” says Thibault.

One of the most obvious challenges was ensuring the first spacecraft to get this close to the Sun (within 4 million miles) could survive. The four-inch carbon-composite foam layer of the Thermal Protection System (TPS) protects the spacecraft from the incredible heat (greater than one million degrees Fahrenheit) and intense light given off by the Sun. All while keeping the delicate and sensitive electronic systems inside operating at room temperature. As Spacecraft Systems Engineer, Thibault oversaw the final design, construction and testing phases to meet all of these challenges and ensure that the Parker Solar Probe functions for the entirety of its seven-year mission.

Having worked most of his career in spacecraft and launch vehicle development, Thibault looked to continue his education by entering a doctoral program.

“I found myself in that interesting zone between engineering and physics,” says Thibault. And as a fundamental building block of everything his career has focused on, materials science and engineering fit best.

The dynamic, talented, personable faculty and the research-oriented nature of the PhD program are ultimately what drew Thibault to JHU’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering. Thibault jokes that despite occasionally being mistaken for a professor by fellow students, he is enjoying his experience on the Homewood campus studying with department chair Jonah Erlebacher.

“My experience is obviously unique at my level of maturity,” chuckles Thibault. “But there’s a good relationship between students and professors at JHU. Everyone is very welcoming and accommodating.”

We wish Steve well on his academic mission with the DMSE and look forward to learning more about the Sun from the Parker Solar Probe.

For more information about the Parker Solar Probe Mission and to see realtime updates from the spacecraft itself, visit http://parkersolarprobe.jhuapl.edu/

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