NASA’s Parker Solar Probe – humanity’s first mission to ‘touch’ a star – will carry over 1.1 million people’s names to the Sun this July, the US space agency said. Throughout its seven-year mission, the probe will swoop through the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times, getting closer to our star than any spacecraft has gone before. “Parker Solar Probe is going to revolutionise our understanding of the Sun, the only star we can study up close,” said Nicola Fox, project scientist for Parker Solar Probe at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in the US.
“It is fitting that as the mission undertakes one of the most extreme journeys of exploration ever tackled by a human-made object, the spacecraft will also carry along the names of so many people who are cheering it on its way,” said Fox. In March, the public were invited to send their names to the Sun aboard humanity’s first mission to ‘touch’ a star. A total of 1,137,202 names were submitted and confirmed over the seven-and-a-half-week period, and a memory card containing the names was installed on the spacecraft on May 18 – three months before the scheduled launch on July 31.
The card was mounted on a plaque bearing a dedication to and a quote from the missions namesake Eugene Parker, who first theorised the existence of the solar wind. This is the first NASA mission to be named for a living individual. This memory card also carries photos of Parker, professor at the University of Chicago, and a copy of his ground-breaking 1958 scientific paper. Parker proposed a number of concepts about how stars – including our Sun – give off material.
He called this cascade of energy and particles the solar wind, a constant outflow of material from the Sun that we now know shapes everything from the habitability of worlds to our solar system’s interaction with the rest of the galaxy. Parker Solar Probe will explore the Sun’s outer atmosphere and make critical observations to answer decades-old questions about the physics of stars. The resulting data may also improve forecasts of major eruptions on the Sun and subsequent space weather events that impact life on Earth, as well as satellites and astronauts in space.