Early Saturday morning, if all goes as planned, 91-year-old Eugene Parker will watch a NASA spacecraft named after him blast off on an unprecedented mission to study the sun.
"It's my first rocket launch, so that will be very interesting," says Parker, a retired astrophysicist who lives in Chicago.
NASA has never named a spacecraft after a living person before. But Parker's colleagues say it's appropriate that this one bears his name. The Parker Solar Probe will get up-close-and-personal with the fiery sun, closer than any spacecraft ever, and Parker is almost a God-like figure among those who study this special star.
"In our field, he's definitely a celebrity," says Angela Olinto, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, where Parker worked for decades. "Most of science is done by a lot of small steps by a lot of different people. He is one of those few people that we know that have made big breakthroughs a few times."
His first came in 1958, when Parker predicted that the sun was constantly spewing out a stream of charged particles at supersonic speeds. He called it the solar wind.
To his critics, this idea seemed laughable. One even suggested he should go to the library and do some reading before trying to write papers on this subject. "And the question is 'Well, what do they think now?'" asks Parker, with a chuckle, adding, "they're all dead by now so it doesn't really matter."
He says it's normal, in science, that something new and different won't be believed. "So it was no surprise," says Parker. "It was annoying, but no surprise."
Soon enough, measurements made in space proved that Parker was right about the solar wind. This was just the beginning of a long career filled with insights that basically started the field of heliophysics, the study of the space environment around our star and how it affects Earth and the other planets.
Parker recalls that the head of science at NASA recently called him up and asked if he'd object if they named the new solar probe after him. "And I said, 'Why no, I guess not,'" recalls Parker, who says he found the honor "rather flattering."
The Parker Solar Probe will be going to the sun's corona, "the atmosphere that we could all see on August 21st when we had a total solar eclipse," says Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is the mission's project scientist.
After traveling for seven years, the spacecraft will come within four million miles of the sun's surface — and will be going really fast.
"We'll be moving at about 430,000 miles an hour, which is about 118 miles a second," says Fox, explaining that it will be the fastest object ever made by humankind "by an awful lot."
To protect it from temperatures that could reach up to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the probe has a heat shield made up of a special foam that's 4.5 inches thick. "It kind of looks like the florist's foam that you would use to make flower arrangements. It's very similar in feel and in texture," says mission system engineer Jim Kinnison. "This, though, is pure carbon."
Behind this shield, where the instruments are, it will be room temperature. The probe's measurements will hopefully help explain mysteries like how the solar wind gets accelerated and why the corona is so weirdly super hot — 300 times hotter than the sun's surface.
"That just shouldn't happen. It just kind of defies the laws of nature," says Fox. "If you move away from a heat source, it should get cooler. But for us it actually gets hotter."
Figuring that one out is something Eugene Parker is looking forward to. "It'll be really fun to be able to close in on that problem," he says.
He adds that although the probe is named after him, the real credit should go to the crew that was able to build a spacecraft capable of withstanding such an extreme space environment.
"I hope the launch is successful," says Parker, "and that the spacecraft does what it's expected to do."
Check out the latest episode of our video series "Maddie About Science"—reporter Maddie Sofia speaks with one of the engineers behind the Parker Solar Probe.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a lot about the sun that remains a mystery. NASA plans to send a probe into space Saturday that will get closer to the sun than ever before. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports it stands out in another way, too.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: This spacecraft is the first one that NASA has ever named after a living person. It's called the Parker probe. Ninety-one-year-old Eugene Parker learned of the honor when he got a call from the head of science at NASA.
EUGENE PARKER: And he said, we have this idea about putting your name on it. Do you object? And I said, no, I guess not - rather flattering, in fact.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Eugene Parker is a godlike figure among folks who study the sun. Sixty years ago, in 1958, he predicted that the sun was constantly spewing out a stream of charged particles at supersonic speeds. He called it the solar wind. Back then this seemed laughable. Everybody knew that space was empty.
PARKER: Well, it's normal in the scientific world if you say something new and different that it will not be believed. So it was no surprise. And it was annoying, but no surprise.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One of his critics even suggested he should go to the library and read up on the sun before trying to write papers about it.
PARKER: And (laughter) the question is, well, what do they think now? Well, they're all dead by now, so it doesn't really matter.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because he was right about the solar wind.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLAR WIND WHISTLING)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA says that's the sound of it from data collected by the Voyager 1 probe. He was right about a lot of other stuff, too. You can open textbooks and read about the Parker spiral, the Parker equation, the Parker instability, the Parker limit.
ANGELA OLINTO: In our field he's definitely a celebrity.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Angela Olinto is an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, where Parker worked for decades.
OLINTO: Most of science is done by a lot of small steps by a lot of different people. He's one of those few people that we know that have made big breakthroughs a few times.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I went to see the Parker Solar Probe before it got packed into the rocket. Project scientist Nicky Fox and I put on white protective suits and went into a big clean room.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE REVERSING)
NICKY FOX: The Parker Solar Probe is the first mission to really journey into the sun's corona. So that's the atmosphere that we could all see on August 21 when we had a total solar eclipse.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: During the eclipse, the blacked-out circle of the sun was surrounded by a ghostly white ring. That's where this probe is going. After traveling for seven years, it will come within 4 million miles of the sun's surface. It'll be going really fast.
FOX: It'll be moving at about 430,000 miles an hour, which is about 118 miles a second. We will be the fastest thing ever by an awful lot.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The spacecraft looks like a two-story-high flashlight wrapped in silver foil. The end that will point towards the sun has a heat shield to protect the probe from temperatures as high as 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Mission system engineer Jim Kinnison says the heat shield is a 4 1/2-inch-thick layer of foam.
JIM KINNISON: It kind of looks like the florist foam that you would use to make flower arrangements, very similar in feel and in texture. This, though, is pure carbon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Behind this shield it'll be room temperature, and that's where the instruments are. Fox says their measurements will hopefully help explain the mystery of why the sun's atmosphere is super hot, 300 times hotter than the sun's surface.
FOX: And that just shouldn't happen. It kind of defies the laws of nature. If you move away from a heat source, it should get cooler. But for us it actually gets hotter.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Figuring that one out is something Eugene Parker is looking forward to.
PARKER: It'll be really fun to be able to close in on that problem eventually.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You know what else is fun? A rocket launch.
PARKER: I have an invitation to go to the Cape and sit there close up and watch the thing go. It's my first rocket launch, so it'll be very interesting.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it will be the first time the namesake of a NASA mission will get to see it blast off. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.