NASA has renamed its groundbreaking mission to touch the Sun, which will come closer than any spacecraft before to our Solar System’s star.
Previously known as the Solar Probe Plus, the spacecraft will now be called the Parker Solar Probe. This is in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, 89, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who in the 1950s revolutionized our understanding of stars. It is the first time a spacecraft has ever been named after a living person.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” said Parker in a statement. “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.”
A 20-day launch window for the spacecraft opens on July 31, 2018. Once in space, it will orbit seven times closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before. Part of its 170-day orbit will bring it just 6.4 million kilometers (4 million miles) from the surface, as it directly samples the solar corona – the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
One of the goals of the mission is to solve the solar corona mystery, and find out why the corona is 300 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. To do this, the Parker Space Probe will orbit the Sun 24 times, using gravitational flybys of Venus to position itself as close as possible.
It will also better prepare for space weather. The Sun frequently sends storms of particles in our direction, which can hamper satellites operating in Earth orbit.
The Parker Space Probe will be subjected to temperatures of up to 1,370°C (2,500°F). To survive, it will use a 4.5-inch-thick heat-resistant carbon-composite shield. This will protect its various instruments, which will study the Sun’s magnetic field, plasma, and solar wind.
“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, in the statement.
“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.”
The team behind the mission also plan to include a chip with photos of Parker and his research on the spacecraft, to further recognize his achievements within the field.