This Wednesday, July 11, 2012, NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun. By looking at a specific range of UV light, HI-C scientists hope to observe fundamental structures on the sun, as narrow as 161 km (100 miles) across or 0.1 arcsec/pixel.
One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.
During its ten-minute journey, HI-C will focus on the center of the sun, where a large sunspot is predicted to be – a prediction based on what the sun looked like 27 days previously, since it takes 27 days for the sun to complete a full rotation. HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including the NASA’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). It can resolve structures down to 600 miles.
AIA can see the entire sun at this resolution, while HI-C will focus on an area just one-sixth the width of the sun or 271,000 km (135,000 miles) across. Also, AIA observes the sun in ten different wavelengths, while HI-C will observe just one: 193 Angstroms. This wavelength of UV light corresponds to material in the sun at temperatures of 1.5 million Kelvin and that wavelength is typically used to observe material in the corona. HI-C’s mirror is only about nine and a half inches across, no bigger than that of AIA. However, the HI-C mirrors, made by a team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, are some of the finest ever made. If one could see the surface at an atomic level, it would show no greater valleys or peaks than two atoms in either direction.
In addition, the team created a longer focal length – that is, they increased the distance the light travels from its primary mirror to its secondary mirror, another trick to improve resolution – by creating a precise inner maze for the light to travel from mirror to mirror, rather than a simple, shorter straight line.
It will start acquiring data at just 620 seconds after launch, at a rate of roughly an image a second and it will be able to look through a secondary H-alpha telescope on the instrument in real-time and re-point the main telescope as needed.
Featured image: Sun’s Corona Simulate (Credit: 3D Graphics)
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