Soon after its launch in June, Nasa’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft sent back images and spectral analyses of the Sun as never seen before. This data focuses on the thin layer between the Sun’s surface and its scorchingly hot (833 315 degrees Celsius) corona, and could help us predict solar storms and mitigate their effect on our communications network.
IRIS can pick out small features, even those merely 240 km across. “We’re just floored by the quality of the images and the spectra,” says Bart De Pontieu, IRIS project lead scientist at Lockheed Martin. According to De Pontieu, the team sees a lot of dynamic, violent events happening at hundreds of kilometres per second in the images. The researchers hope to discover what role these events play in producing the enormous temperatures of the corona. “We realised that we need to look at this area in a lot more detail,” he adds. “It hasn’t been studied as much because it’s a region of changes, of transitions.”
How it works
IRIS’s ultraviolet telescope snaps images about once every 20 seconds, while the spectrograph captures information on the light wavelengths. The probe’s on-board computer then processes the data and beams it down to Nasa 13 times a day. This information is combined with 3D numerical modelling to piece together simulations of what is happening on the Sun’s surface.