Here comes the sun: NASA's first mission to the giant star set for 2018

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NASA's Parker Solar Probe will explore the sun's atmosphere in a mission that begins in the summer of 2018. (WLS)

NASA is sending a probe to touch the sun.

It's the fastest, toughest spacecraft ever built.

It will study the solar wind and what makes the sun boil with energy that sustains life here on Earth.

It's ambitious science that seeks to build on the theories of a University of Chicago astrophysicist, theories Eugene Parker was laughed at for first pushing back in 1958.

It's one thing to get a Nobel Prize, but 92-year-old Professor Emeritus Eugene Parker will fly into eternity with a spacecraft named after him.

The Parker Solar Probe will fly within 4 million miles of the sun, right into the corona visible during this summer's solar eclipse, to better understand the gases pulsating out of the sun that travel like wind in space - a concept Parker proved nearly 60 years ago.

"You grow up learning about the Parker solar wind, and to actually find Parker sitting next to me, it is quite amazing," said Dr. Nicola Fox, project manager, Parker Solar Probe.

The professor received NASA's distinguished service award in part for overcoming his struggles to get his ideas published.

"Students need to know that even if you are successful, it is going to be hard from time to time, and many of the most important science discoveries are a little bit controversial," said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, NASA.

The ship will take eight weeks to get to Venus, travelling an unheard of 430,000 mph. By Christmas, it should be making its first of 24 trips around the sun over the next seven years.

"I am very flattered. It takes my breath away, hardly know what to say! Sort of hanging my name up in the sky!" Parker said. "There are lots of problems like this waiting out there to be solved."

Like Hubble and Cassini, Parker is now a name symbolizing excellence in the quest for knowledge. The Parker probe launches July 31, 2018.

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sciencenasaspaceuniversity of chicagou.s. & worldChicagoHyde Park
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