NASA Satellite Reveals New View Of Sun

IRIS satellite captures never-before-seen details of the sun, enabling scientists to better understand its effect on Earth.
NASA's Next 5 Missions
NASA's Next 5 Missions
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NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), launched into space last month, has returned its first images of the sun. While scientists have yet to study and understand the data, NASA said this is the most detail about the sun's processes that a spacecraft has ever captured.

NASA revealed the images during a media teleconference on Thursday. IRIS, a 400-pound, seven-foot-long satellite, was able to take images that are 10 times higher in resolution and 20 times faster than previously possible.

The satellite consists of a single instrument: an ultraviolet telescope combined with an imaging spectrograph. The telescope is capable of capturing high-resolution images and spectra, a kind of data. The spectra are used to determine velocities and temperatures of gas emissions from the surface of the sun to several thousand kilometers above the sun's surface. IRIS collects data about one percent of the sun at a time, enabling scientists to see details as small as 150 miles across.

[ NASA is looking to private enterprise to help create products for space exploration. Read NASA Seeks Public-Private Project Partnerships. ]

The goal of the two-year mission is to help scientists learn how the sun creates such intense energy. The satellite will study in detail the lowest layers of the sun's atmosphere, called the interface region. That particular part of the sun affects many aspects of near-Earth space, including particles that fill the solar system. The sun's behavior also influences the Earth's climate and weather patterns. But the mission goes beyond making scientific discoveries. The findings would allow spacecraft designers to create instruments and electronics that are better protected from solar flares, for instance.

"The [interface] region provides diagnostics for all the regions of the sun. They're small events in the sun that are dynamic and energetic," said Bart DePontieu, IRIS science lead of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Center.

Science teams at Lockheed Martin and the University of Oslo in Norway have created numerical simulations of the sun that show similarities to the spectra returned by IRIS. But there are also striking differences. "The discrepancies are telling us that something is missing in our model. This is crucial to understanding how the sun affects Earth and understanding global problems like climate change," DePontieu said.

Lockheed Martin designed IRIS and also manages the mission. NASA's Ames Research Center is using 3-D numerical modeling on supercomputers to interpret the data. The IRIS Mission Operations Center, located within the Ames Research Center, sends commands to IRIS and monitors telemetry.

IRIS achieved a milestone on July 17, when its telescope door opened in space. Within the first 21 hours of the door opening, the satellite began capturing its first images. They revealed multiple thin, fiber-like structures that have never been seen before, as well as contrasts in density and temperature throughout the interface region. Scientists plan to combine the information taken by IRIS with the findings of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which studies the whole sun.

The solar observatory lifted off aboard a Pegasus XL rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 27. Although delayed by a day due to a massive power outage at the launch site, the satellite successfully entered its destination, low-Earth orbit. During the first 30 days, ending July 27, the IRIS team has been conducting tests and spacecraft system checks. The mission is scheduled to begin full science operations by Aug. 26.

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