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NASA's Parker Solar Probe named after Michigan-born astrophysicist

Jun 1, 2017

For the first time in history, NASA has named a spacecraft after a living individual. The Solar Probe Plus has been renamed to the Parker Solar Probe in honor of accomplished astrophysicist Eugene Parker. 

Parker, a Michigan native, received a Bachelor of Science in physics from Michigan State University and went on to receive his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. The 89-year-old currently serves as the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. 

When Parker was just 28 years old, he discovered the phenomenon known as "solar wind," high speed matter and magnetism that constantly escapes the sun and affects the planets in our solar system. This formed the basis for most of our understanding about how stars interact with orbiting planets.

Credit Courtesy of the University of Chicago

"Ever since I can remember as a child, I enjoyed very much learning how things work, starting at very primitive levels like a gasoline engine or a steam engine," Parker said. 

He also theorized an explanation for why the "corona," or superheated solar atmosphere, is hotter than the surface of the sun itself, contradictory to physics laws. 

He has received several awards for his research, including the National Medal of Science and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

Due to Parker's vast accomplishments and close alignment to the mission, NASA chose to name the probe after him.  

In the summer of 2018, the probe will be heading straight for the sun's surface.

Illustration of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun.
Credit Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

"Something maintains the temperature at a million degrees, and that's where the solar probe plus is going, this region of space that's never been observed before because it's too hot," Parker said. 

The launch is part of NASA's Living With a Star program which aims to gain more knowledge on how the sun-Earth system affects daily life. NASA hopes the probe will finally answer some puzzling questions about solar physics.