Eugene Parker Imagery

  • Released Friday, July 20th, 2018
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:46PM

On August 6, the launch window opens for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to begin its journey to the corona of the sun, a mission that will bring it closer to the sun than any spacecraft has come before.

Watching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be University of Chicago Prof. Eugene Parker, 91, who has dedicated his life to unraveling the sun’s mysteries. He is the first living person to have a spacecraft named after him and now stands to become the fir

zst person to see his namesake mission thunder into space.

Parker is best known for radically altering ideas about the solar system in the 1950s by proposing the concept of solar wind. As a young scientist at the University of Chicago, he showed that the sun radiates a constant and intense stream of charged particles, which travel throughout the solar system at about one million miles per hour. This is visible as the halo around the sun during an eclipse, and it can affect missions in space as well as satellite communication systems on Earth.

Parker’s theory of the solar wind was so groundbreaking that it was at first dismissed by leading experts, and he barely managed to publish the original 1958 paper that presented his theory. But he firmly defended his work and he was ultimately proven correct in 1962 with data collected by the first successful interplanetary mission, the Mariner II space probe to Venus.

NASA last year named its most important mission to the sun after Parker as a tribute to his work, which established a new field of solar research. He stands as a giant among researchers who continue to push the boundaries of science, such as UChicago professors Wendy Freedman, the world-renowned astronomer first to precisely measure the expansion rate of the universe, and Michael Turner, who coined the term dark energy.

The Parker Solar Probe is scheduled to launch during a window that opens August 6, 2018. The spacecraft will use seven flybys of Venus to slowly reduce its orbital distance and drop closer to the sun. Three of the spacecraft’s orbits will bring it within 3.8 million miles of the sun’s surface—approximately seven times closer than any other previous probe.

“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 was on the UChicago faculty from 1955 to 1995. “One would like to have some more detailed measurements of what’s going on in the solar wind. I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”

The probe’s observations will help scientists understand why the corona is hotter than the sun’s surface, how the solar wind is accelerated and how to forecast its flares, among other questions.

“Gene Parker’s story is about challenging assumptions. He came up with a new theory and proved that theory through meticulous, scientific calculations,” said Angela Olinto, dean of physical science at the UChicago. “Gene carries on a great tradition at UChicago of questioning the status quo to make discoveries and create whole new fields of science.”

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.

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 1 – Angela Olinto, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago

The parker solar probe is the first mission ever to be named after a living person—our own University of Chicago astrophysicist, Eugene Parker. The Solar Probe will be reaching the closest ever to the sun and moving the fastest and reaching the hottest regions of the solar system. It’s so fast that it could go from Chicago to Beijing in less than one minute. Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 2 – Angela Olinto, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago

The hottest environments in the solar system will be probed by this mission, and its instruments—that will be measuring all the different properties of the corona—are protected by a shield, a state-of-the-art shield developed by NASA that would make Captain America very jealous. This shield keeps the instruments behind from being cooked every time the probe gets really close to the sun. So the shield, made of reinforced carbon, is something that is very recent technology and only now can we actually get that close to the sun, and really verify some of the predictions that Gene Parker has made. Credit: University of Chicago

B-roll:

Prof. Eugene Parker drawing equations at blackboard, walking the halls at the University of Chicago, talking with Dean of Physical Sciences Angela Olinto. Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 3 – Angela Olinto, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago

So in 1958, Gene Parker realized that the sun has a magnetic field, and it will have a structure around the solar system that will be populated by what we call plasma. So these are hot particles that are flying from the sun all the way to the edge of the solar system. This is what he called the solar wind. So the solar wind is a structure generated by the sun which basically envelopes the whole of our solar system all the way to the edge. And it has been studied all the way to the edge of the solar system with for example the Voyager Probes. Which are now crossing into what’s outside of the solar system which is the furtherest that man has ever been. Or any machine man-made machines have ever reached across the solar system. Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 4 – Angela Olinto, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago

So Gene Parker had graduated in physics and had a hard time actually getting a job. So he was first doing some researching at University of Utah when he was then invited to come to Chicago. He was not sure he was going to make it in the field when he wrote his paper it didn’t help that the referees were not in agreement with him. And didn’t really want to publish his work. So he had lots of challenges early on but he was right. And this is one of the things that first helped him you know be the person that we all recognize is this amazing role model to all physicists but also the power of science being right or wrong due to experiments. So what vindicated him was not just having Chandrasekhar for example helped him publish his article. But what really made him who he is in the history of science is the fact that the measurements showed him right. Credit: University of Chicago

B-roll:

Prof. Eugene Parker drawing equations at blackboard, looking into the sun on campus, speaking with Angela Olinto.

SOUNDBITE 5 – Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Chicago

I laugh about this because I remember how upset some people were. They insisted I made a mathematical error and I would reply, well here you are. Here’s five lines of algebra. You say I made a mistake, show me. And it’s amazing the number of people that just couldn’t let go of the old ideas. Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 6 -- Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Chicago

They’ve been working on the spacecraft for several years. And one day the phone rang and a guy that I know said we’re talking about putting your name on the solar probe plus it was called, and did I object. And I said no, I feel rather flattered. So, he said okay that’s what we’ll do. Credit: University of Chicago

SOUNDBITE 7 -- Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Chicago

Yes, with some I’m holding my breath that everything goes well. They’re very reliable now in launches these days. They’ve got their technique down. And it’ll be pretty exciting. And I’m really curious about what it will discover. Credit: University of Chicago

B-roll:

Prof. Eugene Parker looking through window on University of Chicago campus. Credit: University of Chicago

B-roll:

Prof. Eugene Parker visiting the probe as it’s under construction at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. CREDIT: JOHNS HOPKINS APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

Credit: University of Chicago

A photo of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who was an editor for the Astrophysical Journal when Eugene Parker submitted his paper on the theory of solar wind in 1958. Credit: University of Chicago

A photo of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who was an editor for the Astrophysical Journal when Eugene Parker submitted his paper on the theory of solar wind in 1958.

Credit: University of Chicago



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