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Visionary Scientist Eugene Parker Dies at 94: Name Is 'Written in' the Sun

NASA named the Parker Solar Probe, the first spacecraft to "touch" the sun, after the groundbreaking astrophysicist.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Eric Mack
3 min read

Eugene Parker at his home.

John Zich/University of Chicago

Eugene N. Parker, the celebrated astrophysicist who played such a pivotal role in our understanding of the sun that NASA named its star-skimming Parker Solar Probe after him, died Tuesday at the age of 94. 

"I don't think it is in any way an overstatement to say that the field of heliophysics exists today largely because of the work of Dr. Eugene Parker," said Nicky Fox, Parker's friend and director of NASA's heliophysics division, in a statement. "Even though Dr. Parker is no longer with us, his discoveries and legacy will live forever."

Parker was born in Michigan in 1927, attended Michigan State University and CalTech to collect degrees in physics, and spent time early in his career at the University of Utah before landing at the University of Chicago in 1955. He would spend the rest of his career there. 

It was also there he would produce a groundbreaking paper proposing the existence of the solar wind, a constant outflow of particles from the sun. Parker's contemporaries criticized and even mocked the notion.

"The first reviewer on the paper said, 'Well I would suggest that Parker go to the library and read up on the subject before he tries to write a paper about it, because this is utter nonsense,'" Parker told UChicago News in 2018.

But Parker's calculations were solid, and within just a few years, NASA's Mariner II mission to Venus would encounter the solar wind directly in 1962. 

Today, the solar wind is understood to be a fundamental phenomenon in our solar system that affects everything from planets' magnetic fields to the rotation and trajectory of asteroids and spacecraft. It's even thought the solar wind played a major role in stripping away the Martian atmosphere, transforming it from a once wetter world to the cold, red dead desert planet we know. 

Over a career that spanned seven decades, Parker also studied cosmic rays, magnetic fields across the universe and more. A number of concepts carry his name, including the Parker instability related to magnetic fields in galaxies and the Sweet-Parker model of magnetic fields in plasmas.

But the most widely recognized honor bestowed on Parker is becoming the first person to witness the launch of a spacecraft that bears his name. The scientist was on hand at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Aug. 12, 2018 when a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted it from Earth.

Parker's son Eric said the experience "moved him deeply."

Watch this: NASA's Parker Probe: Everything you need to know about the plan to 'touch the sun'

Over the last three and a half years, the Parker Solar Probe zipped around the sun and the inner solar system. Last April, the spacecraft actually crossed into the corona of our local star, a nightmarish area where temperatures can reach 3 million degrees Fahrenheit, and survived.

"Parker Solar Probe 'touching the sun,' is a fitting accomplishment for his namesake mission," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science. 

"Gene Parker was a legendary figure in our field -- his vision of the sun and the solar system was way ahead of his time," said Angela Olinto, dean of the physical sciences division at the University of Chicago. "It is only fitting that Gene's name is quite literally written in our star, the sun, and in the physics that describe stars."