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article imageParker solar probe — A once in a lifetime dream to touch the sun

By Karen Graham     Aug 10, 2018 in Science
If the weather cooperates on Saturday, and everything goes according to plan, NASA will be sending a spacecraft to the sun. The Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the massive ball of gas and plasma we call our sun than any spacecraft has gone before.
Just thinking about this $1.5 billion undertaking is awe-inspiring all by itself, however, the mission will be historic in a number of ways, too.
The launch of the probe is currently scheduled to launch tomorrow (Aug. 11) at 3:33 a.m. EDT (0733 GMT) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. One of the reasons this particular time was chosen is because there is a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms tomorrow, and the risk of thunderstorms is lower in the early morning hours.
Saturday's launch window will remain open for about 65 minutes, Omar Baez, launch director at KSC, said during a news conference on Thursday. If the launch were to occur after that time, he and his colleagues are concerned that the spacecraft could potentially be damaged while flying through the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth.
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket carrying a National Reconnaissance Office payload lau...
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV-Heavy rocket carrying a National Reconnaissance Office payload launches Aug. 28, 2013, from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
U.S. Air Force/Joe Davila
As for the historical aspect of the mission, this will be the first NASA science mission to launch aboard one of United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rockets, and Saturday's launch will be the 10th launch using that type of rocket, according to Scott Messer, NASA's program manager for ULA launches.
"This thing goes like nothing has ever gone before," Messer said of the massive rocket, the second most powerful after SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy.
And here is another interesting thing to watch for - besides the two-stage Delta IV Heavy, the probe will be helped along on its journey by a third stage built by Northrop Grumman. This stage will fire about 37 minutes after the initial launch. Combined, all three stages will give the probe the immense speed needed to successfully orbit our star.
The first mission named for a living person
When Sputnik was launched in 1957, it was an historic moment that opened the door to future space endeavors. The beach ball-sized spacecraft carried no instruments to measure anything in space, but getting it there was quite an accomplishment.
The point is, all we knew about the planets and space is what we were able to observe from Earth. So most scientists believed there was plenty of space between the planets, or at least it looked like there was.
But one young man, 31-year-old Eugene Parker, a no-name professor at the University of Chicago didn't share what most scientists believed. In a foundational paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, Dr. Parker described how charged particles streamed continuously from the sun, like the flow of water spreading outward from a circular fountain. No one believed him, reports the New York Times.
“The prevailing view among some people was that space was absolutely clean, nothing in it, total vacuum,” Dr. Parker recalled during an interview at his home.
It didn't take but four years for Dr. Parker to be vindicated. The Mariner 2, a NASA spacecraft en route to Venus, measured energetic particles streaming through interplanetary space — exactly what Dr. Parker had predicted. That stream of particles is now known as the solar wind.
Even though Dr. Parker is into his second decade of retirement from the University of Chicago, the 91-year-old professor is about to be honored again with the launch of the Parker Space Probe tomorrow morning.
Dr. Eugene Parker in 2018
Dr. Eugene Parker in 2018
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Earlier NASA missions have been given new names shortly before or after launching to honor scientists or noteworthy people in NASA’s history. But for the very first time, NASA has chosen to name a mission after a living person, Dr. Eugene Parker.
And while Dr. Parker is a mite frail, he still made a special trip last October. He traveled to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where the spacecraft was built, for a “Parker, meet Parker!” encounter.
Although Parker is the first living person to have a spacecraft named after him, he is the fifth of his peers at UChicago to have the honor, with the other four having won the recognition posthumously. They include alumnus Edwin Hubble, AB 1910, PhD 1917, with the Hubble Space Telescope; Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a UChicago professor who worked with Parker, with the Chandra X-ray Observatory; Enrico Fermi, a Nobel laureate and UChicago professor, with the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope; and Nobel laureate Arthur Holly Compton, a UChicago professor, with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
Watch the launch tomorrow morning. There are several websites, including, and others. I can tell you this - Turn the volume all the way to high and opt for a full screen. It makes the experience totally awesome.
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