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May 31, 2017

NASA christens probe in honor of MSU alumnus

NASA renamed the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft – which will make humanity’s first mission to a star and will launch in 2018 – as the Parker Solar Probe in honor of astrophysicist Eugene Parker, Michigan State University alumnus.

Parker, who earned his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1948 and is the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, is the father of solar wind theory. In 1958 he came up with this theory, which ran in stark contrast to other scientists who believed space was a hard vacuum. 

Parker believed there was high-speed matter and magnetism constantly escaping the sun, and that it affected the planets and space throughout our solar system. By 1962, his theory was proven through direct satellite observation, triggering a drastic change in space science and an entire new set of explanations of phenomena involving fixed stars, the interstellar medium and the galaxy.  

“This upset all the experts,” Parker told MSU’s alumni association. “I sent it for publication and two referees said it was wrong, although they did not refute my calculations. Fortunately, Chandrasekhar was a courageous editor and he went ahead and published it (in The Astrophysical Journal)."

Parker is excited that the solar probe is going to a place that has never been explored before, he said.

“One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind,” Parker said. “I’m sure that there will be some surprises; there always are.”

After leaving MSU, Parker earned his doctorate from Caltech and taught at the University of Utah. Since 1955, Parker has held faculty positions at the University of Chicago and at its Fermi Institute. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the George Ellery Hale Prize, the National Medal of Science, the Bruce Medal, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Kyoto Prize and the James Clerk Maxwell Prize.

Parker Solar Probe is on track for launch during a 20-day window that opens July 31, 2018. 

By: Layne Cameron