Keeping it cool: how do we keep our materials and apparatus cool in space? The Solar Orbiter mission aims to produce images of the Sun and perform detailed measurements of the Sun's properties.

The Solar Orbiter mission aims to produce images of the Sun and perform detailed measurements of the Sun's properties. During this activity you will introduce ideas about keeping materials and tools cool whilst in space and try to encourage the students to apply these ideas during a hands on activity.

Those involved in the mission hope that this will help us understand how the solar system works. The sun has a temperature of almost 6000 ºC and to perform its mission the orbiter will have to get very close to the sun’s surface. This means the orbiter needs a protective heatshield for the side which faces the sun. The instruments that look directly at the sun peer through this heatshield, which prevents the spacecraft from getting so hot that the materials melt and the electronics stop working.

This activity was inspired by and developed with one of our STEM ambassadors; find out more about her in the resource. It has been designed for one session of approximately 40 minutes to an hour. If the extras are followed more sessions will be needed. You will need to allow time to prepare the materials used in the session.

The activity

What you need

The numbers needed will depend on the size of the group. Allow students to work in teams of two to four.

  • Warming cabinet, oven or hairdryer
  • Thermometer
  • Chocolate
  • Scissors
  • Adhesive (tape or glue)
  • Stopwatch
  • Ruler
  • A variety of materials:
    • thin metal foil
    • insulator (polystyrene)
    • plastics (e.g.milk bottles, plastic pots)
    • cardboard etc.

Engineering is ...

Many of the ideas and skills demonstrated in this activity are essential for engineering, in particular Aerospace Engineering.

Aerospace engineers look at the design, construction and science of aircraft and spacecraft. Generally you will need STEM A-levels (Advanced Highers in Scotland) including mathematics and preferably physics too. Alternatives include STEM related Advanced Diplomas or BTEC National Extended Diplomas, plus appropriate qualifications in mathematics and possibly physics. See for more information.

Related subjects: Materials engineering

If students found the ideas presented in this session interesting then an apprenticeship in Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration may be of interest. This is a broad industry with many occupations available to apprentices at the intermediate and advanced level. Visit for more details. Apprenticeships can start at age 16 and students will need GCSEs including English and Maths.

In Scotland visit and in Wales