NASA Hopes to “Touch the Sun” With a Newly Named Probe

The craft will travel within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface

Parker Probe
This brave little craft will face blinding temperatures near the sun. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The sun seems simple: It dictates day and night and heats up Earth's surface. But for scientists, our closest stellar neighbor still presents many scorching mysteries. So for years, NASA has been working on a high-tech probe capable of withstanding a brush with the sun. And today, the agency announced that its probe is getting a new name.

In a press conference this morning, NASA announced that the craft once known as Solar Probe Plus will now be dubbed the Parker Solar Probe. It gets its name from the physicist Eugene Parker, the first person to suggest the existence of solar winds back in the 1950s. 

Parker, who was working at the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute at the time, came up with the concept while trying to explain why comet tails always point away from the sun. His answer: the highest layers of the sun’s corona flow away from the sun itself in a “solar wind.” The idea—and his math backing up the winds—was a breakthrough. Now, the craft that may help figure out exactly how this solar wind works will bear his name.

The mission will be the agency’s first to fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere. The goal: improve space weather predictions by learning more about the sun's corona—the “crown” of plasma that surrounds stars. The sun’s corona is its outer atmosphere, and even though it’s over 90 million miles away, it causes solar winds—charged particles that shoot away from the sun, which can produce storms in Earth’s magnetosphere.

That space weather can disrupt power grids, radio communications and even GPS systems. So the more scientists understand, the better. And there's still much more to learn about the corona, which is much hotter than the sun itself.

Enter the Parker Solar Probe. Scheduled to launch between July 31 and August 19, 2018, the probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, NASA says, orbiting the sun at 430,000 miles per hour and facing temperatures of over 2550°F. “We will finally touch the sun,” said project scientist Nicola Fox at the press conference.

Thanks to Parker, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, “nature has become more beautiful.” It’s the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a researcher during their lifetime.

So what does Parker think of the honor? At the conference, the nearly 90-year-old physicist seemed ready to get right down to business. The craft is “ready to do battle with the solar elements,” he told the audience, and prepared to face down “heroic” temperatures in an attempt to decipher the secrets of a star he already helped demystify. And with just 425 days until launch, Parker himself seemed to feel the excitement.

“Hooray for solar probe,” he told the crowd.

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