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IRIS delivers first images of Sun's atmosphere in unprecedented detail

iris-delivers-first-images-of-sun-s-atmosphere-in-unprecedented-detail

Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft, launched at the end of last month, opened its telescope door on July 17, 2013 and has captured its first observations of Sun in unprecedented detail.

IRIS captures images of the lowest levels of the Sun's atmosphere, the interface region, in more detail than has even been observed before. This will help scientists understand how the energy dancing through this area helps power the Sun's million-degree upper atmosphere, the corona, as well as how this energy powers the solar wind constantly streaming off the Sun to fill the entire solar system. 

"With this grand opening of the telescope door and first observations from IRIS we've opened a new window into the energetics of the Sun's atmosphere," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The mission is a great example of a successful partnership for science between government, industry, academia, and international institutions. We look forward to the new insights IRIS will provide."

The energy flowing through interface region powers the corona to temperatures greater than 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit (1 million kelvins). That is almost a thousand times hotter than the Sun's surface. Understanding the interface region is important because it drives the solar wind and forms the ultraviolet emission that impacts near-Earth space and Earth's climate.

IRIS's first images show a multitude of thin, fiber-like structures that have never been seen before. The observations reveal enormous contrasts in density and temperature throughout this region, even between neighboring loops only a few hundred miles apart. The images also show spots that rapidly brighten and dim, which provide clues to how energy is transported and absorbed throughout the region.

"The quality of the images and spectra we are receiving from IRIS is amazing — this is just what we were hoping for," said Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, California. "There is much work ahead to understand what we're seeing, but the quality of the data will enable us to do that."

Comparing IRIS and SDO

This following video compares the Solar Dynamics Observatory's (SDO) resolution with the IRIS resolution for the same region of the Sun. 

The science of IRIS

IRIS is a NASA Small Explorer mission that was launched on June 27. Designed to observe the interface region more clearly than ever before, IRIS's instrument is a combination of an ultraviolet telescope and a spectrograph. The telescope provides high-resolution images, able to resolve very fine features as small as 150 miles across. The spectrograph splits the sun’s light into its various wavelengths and measures how much of any given wavelength is present. Analysis of these spectral lines also can provide velocity, temperature and density data, key information that will enable scientists to track how energy and heat moves through the region.

Data visualizations courtesy of Mats Carlsson and Viggo Hansteen, University of Oslo, Norway

In the coming weeks and months, scientists will scrutinize the IRIS data of the interface region on the sun. IRIS will collect data at least an order of magnitude faster than any previous solar observatory.

Featured image courtesy of Mats Carlsson and Viggo Hansteen, University of Oslo, Norway

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