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NASA spacecraft bound for the sun is renamed for the astrophysicist who discovered the solar wind

A NASA spacecraft will aim straight for the sun next year bearing the name of an astrophysicist who helped scientists understand how Earth interacts with the star at the center of our solar system.

The Parker Solar Probe will launch in the summer of 2018 and fly within 4 million miles of the sun's surface — right into the solar atmosphere. It will be the first human-built craft to visit a star.

Originally known as Solar Probe Plus, NASA announced Wednesday that it had renamed the mission in honor of Eugene Parker, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

“This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft for a living individual,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “It’s a testament to the importance of his body of work, founding a new field of science.”

Parker studied the stream of charged particles and magnetism that speed away from the sun’s corona in all directions. He even came up with the name for this phenomenon — the solar wind.

Scientists believe that the solar wind gives comets their tails. It is blamed for stripping away much of the Martian atmosphere and bombarding the surface of the moon with elements including helium, neon and argon.

Earth is protected from the solar wind by its magnetic field; however some particles manage to enter the atmosphere, producing geomagnetic storms and auroras such as the northern lights.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly into the source of the solar wind, the corona. This outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere is far hotter than its surface, reaching temperatures of more than 1 million degrees. Scientists don’t understand why that is — indeed, it’s one of the fundamental questions the NASA mission hopes to answer.

In 2024, the 1,350-pound spacecraft is expected to fly within 3.7 million miles of the solar surface, heating up to a toasty 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. On a trip more than 50 years in the making, it will spend nearly seven years flying to and around the sun, looping past Venus seven times.

Parker said he’s eager for the mission to get underway.

“The solar probe is going to a region of space that has never been explored before,” he said in a statement. “It’s very exciting that we’ll finally get a look. 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.

karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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