NASA Names Space Mission After Retired University Of Chicago Professor | WBEZ
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NASA Names Space Mission After 91-Year-Old University Of Chicago Professor

In many science and research circles, Eugene Parker is a celebrity. 

“I got very giddy and kind of embarrassed when I first met Gene,” said Nicola Fox, a scientist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “Physics 101 is Gene Parker’s papers. It doesn't matter what you do, Gene Parker turns up somewhere in that literature.”

The 91-year-old physicist, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, is best known for developing the theory of solar wind, which explains how stars, particularly the sun, give off energy. His work has helped scientists better understand what kind of particles and magnetic fields radiate off the sun and throughout the solar system.

And now, he is the first living person to have a NASA mission named after him: the Parker Solar Probe.

Next month, the Parker Solar Probe will head toward the sun in an attempt to get closer to its surface than any craft before it. Parker (the human) will head to Florida to watch the launch on Aug. 11.

“I’m greatly honored,” Parker told reporters at a press conference in downtown Chicago Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be a superb mission in the sense that it’ll bring back a lot of crucial data.”

While Parker’s theories changed the way we understand the solar system and the relationship between the sun and the earth, his ideas weren’t immediately accepted. Two astronomers rejected his seminal paper before it was published in 1958. 

But Parker was convinced he was correct. In 1962, data from a NASA probe proved his theories.

“From there, it was just sitting out the deniers for four years until the Venus Mariner II spacecraft showed, ‘by golly, there was a solar wind,’” Parker remembered. “There was no further denial.”

Scientists hope Parker’s namesake probe will help them gain a deeper understand of Parker’s work.

“We’re living in this sun’s atmosphere,” said Alex Young, associate director for Science of the Heliophysics Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re living in solar wind streaming by Earth.” 

Young says the particles and magnetic fields streaming from the sun can affect technology on Earth, including the world’s power grids. The sun also causes space weather events that can be harmful to astronauts. And if scientists can better understand the sun, Young said, they can better understand stars across the universe. 

Scientist Nicola Fox, who is working with NASA on the mission, says the timing of the mission is historic.

“We just had the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing,” Fox said, referring to the July 16 anniversary of the first mission to put a man on the moon. 

Playing off the phrase, “shoot for the moon,” Fox said the motto for the Parker Solar Probe should be “go for the sun!”

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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