2018 promises to be a big year for America’s space faring agency, NASA, with the first scheduled launch of the Orion Spacecraft aboard the most powerful American rocket ever built, the Space Launch System (SLS) and now, the first ever mission to our closest star, the sun.

The Parker Solar Probe will depart earth in summer 2018 and make its way to the sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona, where it will transmit data back to Earth from a region of space never before explored by man.  It will use a layer of carbon-composite solar shields nearly five inches thick in order to survive the trip while it gathers and transmits the information back to earth-based receivers.  The probe will have to withstand temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit while traveling at a mind-boggling speed of nearly 450,000 miles per hour while traveling around the sun.

The probe, which was previously named the Solar Probe Plus, was renamed the Parker Solar Probe last week, after noted astrophysicist Eugene Parker.

“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science that also inspired my own research and many important science questions NASA continues to study and further understand every day. I’m very excited to be personally involved honoring a great man and his unprecedented legacy.”

As a young professor at the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi institute, Parker published a paper that famously predicted the existence of solar wind in 1958.  Although his paper was not initially well received by scientists at the time who believed the space between celestial bodies to be nothing but a vacuum, another astrophysicist and Nobel Prize laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, would help get Parker the credit he deserved.

Less than two years after his paper was published, Parker’s theory would be proven right by satellite observations.

“I’m greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission,” Parker said.

“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” He went on. “It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”

Along with the necessary equipment to conduct its experiments, the Parker Solar Probe will also carry a chip with photos of Parker and his paper, as well as a plaque inscribed with a personal message to be determined by Parker.

The probe’s objectives, as stated by NASA will be “tracing the flow of energy that heats and accelerates the sun’s corona and solar wind, determining the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind and explore mechanisms that accelerate and transport energetic particles.”

In laymen’s terms, it promises to give us a better understanding of how the sun functions, which could lead to being able to better predict solar storms, which pose a threat to electronics used on Earth in a similar way to an electromagnet pulse.

“We’ve been inside the orbit of Mercury and done amazing things, but until you go and touch the sun, you can’t answer these questions,” Nicola Fox, the mission project scientist for Parker Solar Probe, said.

“Why has it taken us 60 years? The materials didn’t exist to allow us to do it. We had to make a heat shield, and we love it. Something that can withstand the extreme hot and cold temperature shifts of its 24 orbits is revolutionary.”

The Parker Solar Probe will launch in the summer of 2018 and remain in orbit around the sun until 2025.


Image courtesy of NASA’s JPL