The IRIS spacecraft during encapsulation inside the payload fairing of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL. Image Credit: VAFB/Randy Beaudoin
Researchers hope NASA’s latest solar observatory will answer a fundamental question of how the sun creates such intense energy.
Launched on June 26, the IRIS spacecraft will point a telescope at the region of the sun called the chromosphere to look for signs of how energy moves from the sun’s surface to the glowing corona, heating up from 6,000 degrees to millions of degrees in the process.
The IRIS mission, short for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, calls for the 7-foot-long spacecraft to point its ultraviolet telescope at the sun to discern features as small as 150 miles across. It will look at about 1 percent of the sun’s surface.
“IRIS will show the solar chromosphere in more detail than has ever been observed before,” says Adrian Daw, deputy project scientist. “My opinion is that we are bound to see something we didn’t expect to see.”
IRIS was designed and built at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Palo Alto, Calif., with support from the company’s Civil Space line of business and major partners Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Montana State University, and Stanford University. The instrument has spent time in a cleanroom at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facility in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Scientists plan to combine the results of IRIS’ surveys with the raft of information from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which observes the whole sun at once.
“IRIS almost acts as a microscope to SDO’s telescope,” says Jim Hall, NASA’s Launch Services Program’s mission manager for IRIS. “It’s going to look in closely and it’s going to look at that specific region to see how the changes in matter and energy occur in this region. It’s going to collectively bring us a more complete view of the sun.”
The answers are relevant to many aspects of life including the ways the sun’s behavior helps dictate many elements of Earth’s climate and weather patterns. Aberrations such as coronal mass ejections, commonly known as solar flares, also are of great interest to spacecraft designers who have to figure out ways to protect instruments and electronics from them.
“We’re always looking for the answers to why and everything starts at the root with the sun,” Hall says.
The launch took place from the West Coast because IRIS will go into a roughly polar orbit, meaning it will cross over the north and south pole regions of Earth on each pass around the planet.
“Eight months out of the year, we are freely viewing the sun in that orbit,” Hall says.
Release Date: June 24, 2013