IRIS offers first images of sun atmosphere
July 25, 2013

IRIS Offers First Detailed Glimpse Of Sun’s Atmosphere

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) has provided scientists with their first look at the Sun's atmosphere.

On July 17, an international team of scientists and engineers working on IRIS saw their hard work pay off when the telescope provided its first glimpse, showing unprecedented detail of a little-observed region of the sun.

"These beautiful images from IRIS are going to help us understand how the sun's lower atmosphere might power a host of events around the sun," said Adrian Daw, mission scientist for IRIS at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Anytime you look at something in more detail than has ever been seen before, it opens up new doors to understanding. There's always that potential element of surprise."

NASA said IRIS's first image showed a multitude of structures that had never been seen before, revealing enormous contrasts in density and temperature throughout this region, even between neighboring loops that are only a few hundred miles apart. The images also show spots that rapidly brighten and dim, providing clues as to how energy is transported and absorbed throughout the region.

"Already, we're finding that IRIS has the capability to reveal a very dynamic and highly structured chromosphere and transition region," says astrophysicist Hui Tian of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "Thin and elongated structures are clearly present in these first-light images, and they evolve quickly in time."

This data set will help scientists track how magnetic energy contributes to heating in the sun's atmosphere. Scientists need to observe this region in detail because the energy flowing through it powers the upper layer of the sun's atmosphere to temperatures greater than 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit.

"The quality of 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 the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory 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."

IRIS is providing state-of-the-art observations to peak into the sun's atmosphere, as well as making use of advanced computing to interpret what it is seeing. This mission has long-term implications for understanding the beginnings of space weather that affects Earth, disrupting technologies like communication satellites.

"The IRIS mission has been from inception an enormous international collaborative development effort," says Title. "Our IRIS team was formed to design the mission and prepare the initial proposal. We have worked together seamlessly ever since."