Renowned astrophysicist talks NASA solar probe with Homewood Historical Society

One month after NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe to soar closer to the sun than any spacecraft in history, the probe’s namesake, Eugene Parker, stopped by the Homewood Public Library to speak about the study of Earth’s nearest star.
 
  Eugene Parker, for whom 
  the Parker Space Probe 
  was named, speaks at 
  Izaak Walton Nature 
  Preserve in October 2017.

  (Chronicle file photo)
 
Parker, 91, shared knowledge, notes and hand-drawn diagrams explaining solar wind with about 80 community members at the Sept. 12 meeting of the Homewood Historical Society. The former resident of Homewood and Flossmoor is widely known for his 1958 discovery of solar wind, which describes the sun’s emission of electrically charged particles.
 
“The wind from the sun takes three or four days to travel out here to Earth, which is not bad,” he said. “It’s 92 million miles. That’s a pretty good day’s trip.”

Parker now lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago where he held faculty positions since 1955.
 
In 2017, Parker became the first living person to have a NASA spacecraft formally named after him. Previously called the Solar Probe Plus, the Parker Solar Probe was launched Aug. 12 and is set to sail within four million miles of the sun. 
 
The probe will collect data about the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, that has never before been possible with such precision.
 
“Some authors say (solar wind) is particles being shot away into space, of which I disagree,” Parker said. “I suppose you could argue it’s technically right because the wind is made up of particles, but it’s a flow of fluid starting out at the sun very, very gradually where the corona is dense and accelerating as it moves outward.”
 
He added that the corona is held in place by “bone-crushing gravity” and that a 120-pound person would weigh 3,360 pounds on the sun. 
 
Someone who travels from Earth into space, even just halfway to the moon, would find there is a wind blowing from the sun at a typical velocity of 200 to 300 miles per second, Parker said. 
 
“The solar wind carries away about 1 million tons per second,” he said. “You think, ‘Uh oh, that’s bad news,’ but then if you divide that into the mass of the sun, you find that in the lifetime of the sun, which is estimated at 10 billion years, you’d lose about 1/1000th the mass of the sun.”
 
Parker also talked about his experience watching the Parker Solar Probe launch. He said the viewing party sat back six miles with a clear view and got a sense of the voyage that the probe was starting.
 
“When it takes off you watch it climbing higher and higher into the sky and going faster and faster, and this goes on for two or three or four minutes,” he said. “Then the trajectory begins to turn over and go nearly horizontally when it gets up enough speed, and all you see is a bright spot in the sky as it recedes with the spot going smaller and smaller, and finally you can’t see it anymore and you realize the probe is gone. It’s on its way, and it will never come back.”
 
Rose Olsar, program co-chair for the Homewood Historical Society, said the idea to invite Parker to speak stemmed from the “Solar Wind Celebration” Homewood-Flossmoor High School hosted in May, which honored him through music, poetry and art. 
 
Olsar said she and fellow co-chair Elaine Egdorf decided to contact Parker about doing a presentation after he spoke at the Homewood Izaak Walton Preserve in October 2017.
 
“I realized that most of our programs are local Homewood history or history of surrounding areas and that this is a little bit different, but if you stop to think of it, it’s more than local history, it is the history of the universe,” Olsar said. 
 
Jim Wright, president of the Homewood Historical Society, said part of the society’s goal is to educate people not only on the past history of Homewood but also on its modern history.
 
“Homewood is made up of everybody that’s lived here, and here is an individual who spent a good deal of his adult life here who has contributed so much to the scientific community,” Wright said. “We’re proud to have had him be a part of the Homewood- Flossmoor community and to have other people know what Homewoodians have done in their life.”
 

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