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.
Parker also theorised an explanation for the superheated solar atmosphere, the corona, which is, contrary to what was expected by physics laws, hotter than the surface of the Sun itself.
Many NASA missions have continued to focus on this complex space environment defined by our star – field of research known as heliophysics.
“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
“It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface,” she said.
Parker Solar Probe is on track for launch during a 20-day window that opens on July 31, 2018, NASA said.