On Aug. 11, the launch window opens for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to begin its journey to the corona of the sun, a mission that will bring a spacecraft closer to the sun than any ever before.
Watching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be University of Chicago Prof. Emeritus Eugene Parker, who has dedicated his life to unraveling the sun’s mysteries. He is the first living person to have a spacecraft named after him and is now preparing at the age of 91 to become the first person to see his namesake mission thunder into space.
Parker is best known for his pioneering research on the sun, which radically changed scientists’ understandings of the solar system. In the 1950s, he proposed the concept of solar wind, showing that the sun radiates a constant and intense stream of charged particles that travel throughout the solar system at about one million miles per hour. This is visible as the halo around the sun during an eclipse, and it can affect missions in space as well as satellite communication systems on Earth.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before. It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look,” said Parker, who was on the UChicago faculty from 1955 to 1995. “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’s theory of the solar wind challenged conventional understandings of the sun, causing scientists at the time to dismiss his work. Parker barely managed to publish the original 1958 paper that presented his theory. But he firmly defended his work, and he was ultimately proven correct in 1962 with data collected by the first successful interplanetary mission, the Mariner II space probe to Venus.
“Gene Parker’s story is about challenging assumptions. He came up with a new theory and proved that theory through meticulous, scientific calculations,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences at UChicago. “Gene carries on a great tradition at UChicago of questioning the status quo to make discoveries and create whole new fields of science.”