CHICAGO (CBS) — NASA has announced an unprecedented mission to “touch the Sun” will be named after a noted solar astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.
Next year, NASA plans to launch the Solar Probe Plus mission, sending a space vehicle to within 4 million miles of the surface of the Sun – the closest a man-made object ever has been to the Sun.
The 7-year misison will be named in honor of longtime University of Chicago astronomy and astrophysics professor Eugene Parker. It’s the first NASA mission named after a living person.
“It is my great honor, a few days before your 90th birthday, Gene – to announce that we’re renaming the Solar Probe Plus space probe to be known from now on as the Parker Solar Probe,” NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said at an event at the university’s William Eckhardt Research Center Auditorium.
If it works, the Parker Solar Probe will send back forecast information about the Sun’s photosphere and solar winds.
Parker first hypothesized solar winds exist in 1958. His research has greatly increased the understanding of solar winds, the Sun’s corona, the Earth’s and Sun’s magnetic fields, and more solar phenomena.
Parker said it was a real honor to have such an auspicious mission named after him.
“I’m certainly greatly honored to be associated with such a heroic scientific space mission,” he said.
It’s a mission that generations of scientists have thought was nearly impossible.
No previous spacecraft has ever been built to withstand the Sun’s incredible heat and radiation.
The car-sized spacecraft will need to withstand 2500-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
NASA has said the mission also aims to reveal why the surface of the sun, called the photosphere, is not as hot as the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona. The surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But the atmosphere above it is significantly hotter, at a blazing 3.5 million degrees, according to NASA.
To deal with the extreme temperatures involved in the mission, NASA scientists have designed a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield for the probe, so it can withstand the 2500 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at its destination.
In addition, the probe will have special heat tubes called thermal radiators that will radiate heat that permeates the heat shield to open space, so it doesn’t damage heat-sensitive instruments. If the shielding and heat tubes work as designed, the instruments inside the probe will stay at room temperature.
While this mission will be unmanned, given enough time and money, NASA believes it could develop a spacecraft to carry astronauts to within 4 million miles of the sun.