NASA Details Plans to Fly to the Sun in 2018


NASA will head to the Sun in summer 2018 in a mission renamed today in honor of the man who proposed the existence of solar winds some 60 years ago—and was ridiculed for it.

The Parker Solar Probe (formerly the Solar Probe Plus) has been in the works for some time. It's been renamed for astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who first described solar winds in the mid-1950s. Parker's first research paper on the subject was initially rejected on the grounds that his thesis was ridiculous. (One reviewer at Astrophysical Journal told Parker he should go to the library before he tried to write research papers.) Just a few years later, spacecraft in orbit confirmed his calculations.

NASA scientists will aim the probe Sunward, Icarus-style, and hope the equipment fares better than the mythical inventor’s son in the face of the blazing star’s incredible heat and radiation.

The probe’s trajectory will take it into the Sun's outer atmosphere, within 4 million miles of the surface. This may seem like an enormous distance to us puny humans, but in cosmic terms, that’s practically grazing the Sun’s flaming cheek.

Jonathan Lunine is the director of the Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science at Cornell University. Speaking in a statement, he said the epic brush with the Sun will yield a lot of new data. The mission will "fly closer to the Sun than the distance at which even close-in exoplanets orbit their own suns,” he said, “giving us unprecedented information on the kinds of environments these planets experience.”

“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” said project scientist Nicola Fox, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a 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. And we’re very proud to be able to carry Gene’s name with us on this amazing voyage of discovery.”

Speaking at a press conference earlier today at the University of Chicago, Parker said he was "greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission." The probe is a "fabulous spacecraft," he said. "Hooray for solar probe."