NASA Parker Solar Probe, named after UChicago scientist, begins historic mission

Prof. Eugene Parker becomes first person to see launch of mission named in their honor

At 2:31 a.m. CDT on Sunday, Aug. 12, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe blasted off into the predawn darkness, on its way to explore the sun on a mission that will send it closer to our star than any previous spacecraft.

With its liftoff, University of Chicago Prof. Emeritus Eugene Parker became the first person to witness the launch of a namesake spacecraft. The Parker Space Probe is the first NASA mission named in honor of a living person.

“All I can say is wow, here we go,” said Parker, who is the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics at UChicago. “[Now I] really have to turn from biting my nails … to thinking about all the interesting things which I don’t know yet. We’re in for some learning the next several years.”

On a clear, muggy night at Cape Canaveral, with the occasional shooting star from the Perseids meteor shower streaking overhead, Parker watched from NASA’s viewing terrace along with three generations of his family. Cheers and applause erupted as the rocket climbed into the sky, and minutes later, shed its booster engines in a flare of light.

After officials announced the spacecraft was safely on its way, the company hugged, shook hands and took celebratory sips of Parker Solar Pale Ale, made in honor of the occasion by local company Crystal Lake Brewing.

It was a humbling moment for Parker, who was attending his first NASA launch.

“It’s a bit like the Taj Mahal. We’ve all seen pictures of the building and what a graceful structure it is, but ... video and paintings and so forth don’t quite catch it somehow,” Parker said. “It’s in a different state when you’re looking at the real thing.”

NASA said the honor befits the magnitude of Parker’s contributions to science. Parker’s revolutionary scientific career began with his 1958 proposal of the “solar wind,” which radically changed scientists’ understandings of the solar system.

He suggested, and later NASA missions confirmed, that the sun radiates an intense stream of charged particles that travel throughout the solar system at supersonic speeds. 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 discovery reshaped our view of space, stars and their surroundings. It also established a new field of astrophysics, leading NASA last year to name its newest and most ambitious mission to the sun after Parker as a tribute to his work.

“We're so excited and proud that Eugene Parker’s namesake mission, the Parker Solar Probe, launched this morning,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences at UChicago. “By first proposing the concept of the solar wind in 1958, Parker revolutionized our understanding of the solar system, and we eagerly await data from this mission that will help us continue to unravel the mysteries of our universe.”

Once it leaves Earth, the Parker Solar Probe will use seven flybys of Venus to slowly reduce its orbital distance and drop closer to the sun—eventually flying into the corona, facing searing temperatures of more than a million degrees Fahrenheit.

The data it collects will provide clues to explore the still-mysterious physics behind the sun—including questions first raised by Parker’s work a half-century ago, such as the nature of the mechanism that flings the solar wind off the sun.

Scientists around the world are eagerly awaiting the results, which will shed light on everything from the magnetic underpinnings of stars to the conditions that would await astronauts traveling to Mars to why the corona is so much hotter than the surface of the sun.

“The science has started on its way, and it won’t stop until we know a lot more about the structure and heating of the solar corona,” Parker said.

Among the company at the Kennedy Space Center was Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory scientist Nicola Fox, the Parker Solar Probe mission scientist.

“I can’t think of anybody who would be more deserving of having a mission named after them than Gene Parker,” she said at a news conference in Chicago held before the launch. “Physics 101 is Gene Parker’s papers. It doesn’t matter what you do, Gene Parker turns up somewhere in that literature.”

The solar wind was only the first of Parker’s discoveries; he went on to study other phenomena, such as cosmic rays and the magnetic fields of galaxies. His name is littered across the field of astrophysics: the Parker Instability, which describes magnetic fields in galaxies; the Parker equation, which describes particles moving through plasmas; the Sweet-Parker model of magnetic fields in plasmas; and the Parker limit on the flux of magnetic monopoles.