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U of C prof on NASA probe named for him: ‘unsung heroes’ are those who built it

Professor Gene Parker speaks July 31, 2018 at the Geacher Center about the Parker Solar Probe, days before the launch window begins on August 11. | U of C| Photo by Jean Lachat

Professor Gene Parker speaks July 31, 2018 at the Geacher Center about the Parker Solar Probe, days before the launch window begins on August 11. | U of C| Photo by Jean Lachat

Eugene Parker may be the first living person to have a NASA mission named after him, but he insists that “all I did was write a paper.”

Parker, 91, proposed his theory about “solar wind” in a seminal paper in 1958, then spent four years “sitting out the deniers” who thought the idea bogus. Eventually, satellite data proved him correct and a new field of research was launched on the sun’s atmosphere, which is millions of degrees hotter than its surface.

Now, 60 years later, Parker plans to be at Cape Canaveral to watch NASA launch the Parker Solar Probe just before 4 a.m. on August 11.

“I feel the unsung heroes of this are the guys who built the spacecraft,” Parker, a retired University of Chicago professor, said at a news conference Tuesday. “They’re the guys in the backroom who are absolutely essential. There wouldn’t be a mission without them.”

Parker, who fell in love with physics in high school, first studied the sun as a research assistant at the University of Chicago. He was at the university from 1955-1995, including a stint as chairman of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Nicola Fox, project scientist for the Parker Solar Probe, said the launch is the result of 60 years of waiting for “technology to catch up with our dreams” of visiting the last piece of our solar system.

Working with the astrophysicist has been like meeting a celebrity, Fox said, adding that he never fails to give due credit to those behind the scenes. She recalled his visit to the lab in October, when Parker told them: “If I’m wrong, I can write another paper, but if your engineers get it wrong, they don’t have that kind of luxury.”

She called him the “father of this whole physics branch.”

He “profoundly changed the way we thought about how our star worked,” Fox said. “I can’t think of anybody who would be more deserving of having a mission named after them.”

The probe’s initial flyby likely will occur in early November, with the first, small set of data to arrive in December, Fox said. The biggest amount of data will not come until 2019.

It will fly 3.83 million miles above the sun’s surface — which, when imagining the Earth and sun on two ends of a football field, places the probe right around the four-yard line.

Parker said he is excited to uncover mysteries about the sun, but always prepared to be surprised by the unknown.

“Sometimes people sound puzzled as to why you want to go to such a hot spot,” Parker said. “The answer is because we have reason to believe there are interesting things going on.”