U.S. space agency officials announced on Wednesday, May 31, that NASA’s upcoming mission to send a probe to the sun has been renamed the Parker Solar Probe.
The new name honors 89-year old solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted the existence of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that constantly flow from the sun.
Parker wrote in an article published in the Astrophysical Journal in 1958 about high-speed matter and magnetism that constantly escape from the sun and influence space and planets in the solar system.
The theory was initially met with skepticism but was later proven correct by observations. Parker’s work now serves as basis for much about current understanding on how stars interact with the worlds orbiting them.
Parker also proposed other concepts about stars including the sun giving off energy. He likewise put forward a theory to explain why the corona, the solar atmosphere, is hotter compared with the surface of the sun itself, which defies physics laws.
A First For A NASA Spacecraft
This is the first time that a NASA spacecraft has been named for a living individual. NASA’s missions are usually renamed after launch and certification, but because of Parker’s accomplishments in the field and how closely aligned the solar mission is with area of study, it was decided to honor him even before the launch of the mission. The aim is to draw attention to his contributions to space science and heliophysics.
If everything goes according to plan, data that will be gathered by the Parker Solar Probe may help scientists solve two long-standing puzzles about the sun, namely how the solar wind accelerates, and why the corona of the sun is far hotter than the solar surface.
“It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science that also inspired my own research and many important science questions NASA continues to study and further understand every day,” said NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. “I’m very excited to be personally involved honoring a great man and his unprecedented legacy.”
Parker Solar Probe mission scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) said that the Parker Solar Probe will bring along a chip that contains photos of Parker and a copy of his 1958 solar-wind paper.
The U.S. agency has also asked the astrophysicist, who will celebrate his 90th birthday this June, for an inscription for a plate that will be installed on the Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft designed to get near the sun.
“I’m certainly greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission,” Parker said.
The mission is set for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 31, 2018. The spacecraft will aim to get within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, where it will be exposed to heat and radiation never before experienced by earlier NASA missions.