A NASA spacecraft will aim next year for the "coolest, hottest mission" under the sun.
The space agency announced the red-hot mission to the sun Wednesday during a ceremony honoring astrophysicist Eugene Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. NASA renamed the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft — the first ever mission to a star — after Parker during the event. It is the first time a spacecraft has been named after a living scientist.
"I’m greatly honored to be named after such an important mission," Parker said as he was presented with a model of the Parker Probe Plus spacecraft.
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Parker’s discovery of the "solar wind," the corona’s supersonic expansion into interplanetary space, in 1957 "reshaped how scientists think of space and set this entire endeavor in motion," said Eric Isaacs, executive vice president for research, innovation and national laboratories at the University of Chicago. Parker also theorized that the sun's corona was several hundred times hotter than the surface of the sun itself.
And though observational advances accompanied by advances in modeling have helped scientists evolve theories to explain this unconventional phenomenon that defies the laws of physics, NASA says it's time to "touch the sun" and solve "many of the largest mysteries about our star."
"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.
Scheduled to launch in summer 2018, the Parker Probe Plus will fly within 4 million miles of the sun's surface — right into the solar atmosphere. It will be subjected to brutal heat and radiation like no other man-made structure before.
"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 said.
NASA hopes data collected during the mission will improve forecasting of weather events in space that impact life on Earth, the lives of astronauts in space and satellites, the agency said.
"One recent study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that without advance warning a huge solar event could cause $2 trillion in damage in the U.S. alone, and the eastern seaboard of the U.S. could be without power for a year," NASA said.
Born on June 10, 1927, in Michigan, Eugene Newman Parker received a Bachelor of Science in physics from Michigan State University and a doctorate from Caltech. Parker taught at the University of Utah before transferring to the University of Chicago where he has held several faculty positions since 1955, according to the school.
Throughout the 1950s, Parker proposed several concepts on how stars, including the sun, give off energy. Parker believed there was complex system of plasmas, magnetic fields and energetic particles constantly escaping the sun, and that it affected the planets and space throughout our solar system.
Parker's work formed the basis for much of what astrophysicists understand about how stars interact with the worlds around them.
"Space, galaxy, I know of no new place to find physics,” Parker said of his love for heliophysics.