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NASA spacecraft getting set to 'touch' the sun

The Solar Probe Plus is ditching its less-than-inspiring name in honor of Eugene Parker, a living pioneer in the study of stars, including our own sun.

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NASA has a new name for the first-of-its-kind spacecraft that will launch next year on a mission to touch the outer edges of the sun. As of Wednesday, Solar Probe Plus is now known as the Parker Solar Probe.

The name change happened at a ceremony at the University of Chicago in honor of the new namesake, Eugene Parker. While a professor at the university in the 1950s, Parker proposed a number of ideas about the sun and stars that were controversial at the time, like the notion of a so-called "solar wind" of energetic particles flowing from them into space.

The existence of the solar wind has since been repeatedly proven to exist and to affect the Earth and other planets. It's part of how we explain the current state of Mars and a potentially revolutionary source of propulsion for space travel in the future. 

The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA spacecraft to be named for a living person. 

"It's a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun's corona is so much hotter than its surface," Parker Solar Probe Project Scientist Nicola Fox said during the ceremony.

The craft is set to launch as soon as July 31, 2018, and reveal how much heat it can handle shortly thereafter. It will come eight times closer to the sun than the orbit of Mercury, a region of space that's never been explored before.   

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