NASA on Wednesday announced that it has renamed the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft – humanity’s first mission to a star, which will be launched in 2018 – as the Parker Solar Probe in honour of astrophysicist Eugene Parker.
“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
The announcement was made at a ceremony at the University of Chicago, where Parker serves as the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. In 1958, Parker, then a young professor at the university’s Enrico Fermi Institute, published an article in the Astrophysical Journal called “Dynamics of the interplanetary gas and magnetic fields.”
Parker believed there was high speed matter and magnetism constantly escaping the Sun, and that it affected the planets and space throughout our solar system. This phenomenon, now known as the solar wind, has been proven to exist repeatedly through direct observation.
Parker’s work forms the basis for much of our understanding about how stars interact with the worlds that orbit them. “The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” he said.
“It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are,” Parker added. In the 1950s, Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars, including our Sun, give off energy.
He called this cascade of energy the solar wind, and he described an entire complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles that make up this phenomenon.
After liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in July 2018, the Parker Solar Probe will become the first to fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona.
The plan for the unmanned spacecraft is to orbit within 3.9 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) of the sun’s surface.
Temperatures in that region exceed 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,377 Celsius), for which the spacecraft is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick (11.43 cm) carbon-composite shield. Roughly the size of a small car, the probe will make seven flybys of the sun over a seven-year period, in what NASA described as a “mission of extremes.”
Traveling at a speed of 430,000 mph, the spacecraft will move fast — like going from New York City to Tokyo in less than a minute. Scientists hope its data will improve forecasts of solar storms and space weather events that affect life on Earth, satellites and astronauts in space.