Despite a few delays and technical glitches, the Parker Solar Probe has finally seen liftoff. The ambitious mission to become the first spacecraft to enter the sun’s corona is now underway and the physicist for whom the spacecraft was named was able to watch the historic launch.
Before the Parker Solar Probe was launched aboard the Delta IV Heavy rocket at 3:31 a.m. Eastern on Sunday, it had already achieved many firsts in innovation, such as its heat shield, the Thermal Protection System. However, it’s also a cultural first for NASA, whereby the mission was named after a living scientist for the first time in the space agency’s history. This created an opportunity for Dr. Eugene Parker to see his namesake launch into space and discuss the experience.
Parker spent his career studying the sun’s role in the solar system and is best known for his theory of the superheated solar corona, which was contrary to popularly held theories at the time. In 1958, he argued that the sun’s corona was hotter than the surface of the sun itself, suggesting that nanoflares and solar wind, or a rush of charged particles streaming off the sun, could cause the additional heat. His research was instrumental to understanding the sun’s nature well enough for NASA to build a spacecraft that won’t melt when it reaches the corona.
“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before. It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look,” said Parker, who, as the first living scientist have a NASA mission named after him, has been able to see the probe up close and watch its development. Parker was able to watch the launch firsthand, knowing his groundbreaking 1958 paper was aboard the probe, along with his picture and a card that reads, “The Parker Solar Probe mission is dedicated to Dr. Eugene N. Parker whose profound contributions have revolutionized our understanding of the sun and solar wind. ‘Let’s see what lies ahead.’ Gene Parker, July 2017.”
Once launched, the Parker Solar Probe will use Venus’ gravitational pull to shrink its orbit around the sun. These flybys will take roughly seven years, eventually bringing the probe as close as 3.7 million miles from the center of the solar system and making it the first spacecraft to enter the sun’s corona.
“One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind,” Parker explained his excitement for the mission, but recognized how ambitious the plan is. For Parker, it was an honor to be recognized for a mission that was 60 years in the making, but anything is still possible for the Parker Solar Probe. “I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”