NASA Renames Mission to 'Touch the Sun' After Astrophysicist Eugene Parker

the sun
An X3.1-class flare erupting from the sun on October 24, 2014. If you don’t use proper protection when viewing the upcoming total solar eclipse, you could burn your eyes. NASA/SDO

NASA has announced its mission to "touch the sun" has been renamed after the American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker—the first time a NASA mission has been named after a living scientist.

The mission will now be known as the Parker Solar Probe—honoring Parker and his contribution to the study of the sun over the last 60 years. At a press conference, the 89-year-old said he was "greatly honored" to be associated with such an impressive mission.

He said that as a theoretician, he greatly admired the scientists who have been able to translate the probe concept into reality: "Hurray for solar probe," he said.

Last Friday, the space agency said it would be hosting a live event to announce new details about its first mission to fly directly into the sun's atmosphere. The mission, previously known as Solar Probe Plus, would see the first spacecraft placed into orbit around the sun—eventually coming as close as four million miles from the surface, where it would pass through the corona, with temperatures exceeding those found on the surface of our star.

The mission is due to launch in July or August next year.

Steven Clarke, director of NASA's heliophysics division, tells Newsweek: "My leadership and I looked at the mission name and we started thinking about some of the scientists that have played a key role in developing the science of heliophysics [the effects of the sun on the solar system]. We decided that we wanted to rename the mission after one of these individuals that has been a significant contributor to the sun.

"Typically, NASA names missions after scientists that have also contributed to various sciences like astrophysics and so forth, typically after they have passed, so it's posthumously done. This time, we thought well 'why do we need to do that? Why not honor someone who is still with us, who can enjoy the honor?'"

The team put the request to rename the mission through NASA's leadership and everyone agreed it was an "excellent idea," Clarke says. "So this is the first time we're naming a mission after someone who is a significant contributor who can enjoy the honor."

NASA's mission to the sun, first proposed in 1958, has been a long time coming. Until now we have not had the technology to withstand the extreme conditions the probe will face during its close encounters.

"The technology had to catch up with the concept," Clarke says. One of the key points of the Parker Solar Probe mission will be when the spacecraft flies through the sun's corona (the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere). The corona is known to be hotter than the surface of the sun—but we don't know why.

"We're actually going to penetrate the corona for the first time. We know from remote sensing the corona is hotter than the surface of the sun and we're still looking for answers about why is that. If we can fly into the corona and actually sample it, we hope to be able to answer that question.

"We had to develop a heat shield that could protect the spacecraft itself and instruments from extreme heat. It took years to develop this technology and the instrumentation had to evolve and mature to the point where it could withstand the radiation, the magnetic fields etc. All of that technology had to mature to the point we felt we had enough risk reduced to be able to fly the mission and survive the environment and achieve the mission. That's where we are now."

Solar Probe Plus
Mission design showing the route Solar Probe Plus will take. NASA

Scientists have learned a great deal about the sun in recent decades as a result of space and Earth-based observatories. However, there are still many questions that remain unanswered. And going to the sun to collect data physically will allow scientists to do this. Understanding the sun is of paramount importance—it is what provides energy for life on Earth to exist.

"There's much, much more to learn and you can only do so much remotely from a distance," Clarke says. "You have to get to a point where you can go to our star and start getting data you've never been able to get before." The data returned will open up whole new avenues of research that will go in many different directions, he adds.

"We don't know everything there is to know about the sun. We have a lot more to learn and a lot of mysteries to unlock."

Jonathan Lunine, Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, has served on a number of NASA advisory panels in the past. Commenting on the mission, he tells Newsweek that understanding the sun is crucial.

"The sun is our star and almost all life on Earth depends on it," he says. "Understanding how it works informs us of how we have had a habitable planet for 4.5 billion years. There are practical issues as well. The active outer atmosphere, the corona, which the spacecraft will fly through, is the region where the solar wind is generated. That wind of charged particles from the sun can have spectacular consequences for disruption of electronic communications, of power systems, and so forth.

"Sending a spacecraft to probe the region where these effects are generated will give us a much better understanding of how and where they will occur. And it will be possible to predict these events with better accuracy so we will be able to take action earlier."

Lunine hopes the mission will be a success—entering such an extreme environment is hugely risky, and the instruments will need to work for scientists to get all the data they hope to back from the probe.

The mission, he adds, could also help answer questions about the potential for extraterrestrial life. "My own personal interest in this—in addition to living on the Earth, which depends on the sun—is translating some of this to understanding the environment around extrasolar planets. Being able to understand how other stars affect their planets and the habitability of those planets—this will be an important tool in advancing that as well."