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IRIS Mission Gets First Look at Sun's Mysterious Interface Region
July 25, 2013

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MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft has captured its first observations of a region of the sun that is now possible to observe in detail: the lowest layers of the sun's atmosphere.

The first images from IRIS show the solar interface region in unprecedented detail. They reveal dynamic magnetic structures and flows of material in the sun's atmosphere and hint at tremendous amounts of energy transfer through this little-understood region. These features may help power the sun's dynamic million-degree atmosphere and drive the solar wind that streams out 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."

IRIS capabilities are tailored to let scientists observe the interface region in exquisite detail. The energy flowing through it powers the upper layer of the sun's atmosphere, 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.

As IRIS's telescope door opened for the first time on July 17, the imaging spectrograph began to observe the sun. 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, Calif. "There is much work ahead to understand what we're seeing, but the quality of the data will enable us to do that."

A team at Ames controls the spacecraft on a daily basis from the Mission Operations Center, which serves as an example of a small, low-cost flight operations center for NASA. Ground data system engineers at Ames also support IRIS by helping to design, develop and integrate the software tools that enable flight controller tasks.

"Ames is pleased to contribute our flight operations support and super computing prowess to this exciting Heliophysics mission," said S. Pete Worden, Ames Center Director and IRIS co-investigator. "Our Flight Operations team works daily with the project scientists to begin our investigation of the lower solar atmosphere.  In addition, the agency's Pleiades supercomputer housed at Ames has been heavily utilized to further process the data that will help us understand and be able to model the energy transfer process in the interface region."

IRIS' unique capabilities will be coupled with state of the art 3-D numerical modeling on supercomputers, such as Pleiades, housed at Ames. Recent improvements in the power of supercomputers, such as Pleiades, to analyze large amounts of data will enable IRIS to provide better information about the region than ever before.

IRIS is a NASA Small Explorer mission that was launched on June 27, 2013. 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.

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.

The IRIS Observatory was designed by Lockheed Martin, which also manages the mission. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., built the telescope.  Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., designed the spectrograph. Ames provides mission operations and ground data systems. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Small Explorer Program for NASA Headquarters. The Norwegian Space Centre is providing regular downlinks of science data. Other contributors include the University of Oslo in Norway and Stanford University in California.

For more information about IRIS, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/iris

For information about Ames' involvement in the mission, visit: http://go.nasa.gov/18eIcHj

 

Text issued as NASA Ames news release 13-53AR.

Rachel Hoover, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. 650-604-4789, rachel.hoover@nasa.gov

Steve Cole, Headquarters, Washington, 202-358-0918, stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

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First Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) movie, 21 hours after opening the telescope door. This video has been slowed forty percent and looped four times to show greater detail.
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NASA/IRIS
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IRIS Near Ultraviolet Spectrum
IRIS Near Ultraviolet Spectrum. The horizontal axis shows wavelength. The vertical axis shows spatial direction. Vertical black lines are spectral lines formed on the sun's surface. These spectra are used to determine velocities and temperatures of the emitting gas for a range of heights from the surface of the sun to several thousand kilometer above the sun's surface. The horizontal yellow line shows the cut that is used to create the following movie.
Image Credit: 
Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory
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IRIS Opens Its Eye to the Sun
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NASA
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IRIS Spectrum Line Plot
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Rachel Hoover