NASA's Newest Space Telescope Sends Back Its First Images of the Sun, and They're Gorgeous

Early evidence suggests that IRIS is going to be a feast for those who love pretty pictures of space.
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Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/NASA

Last month, NASA launched a new telescope, known as IRIS, into space to study the sun. Today we got our first glimpse of what IRIS is seeing, and ... wow.

Even NASA's press release bubbled with excitement:

The moment when a telescope first opens its doors represents the culmination of years of work and planning -- while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a wealth of research and answers yet to come. It is a moment of excitement and perhaps even a little uncertainty. On July 17, 2013, the international team of scientists and engineers who supported and built NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, all lived through that moment. As the spacecraft orbited around Earth, the door of the telescope opened to view the mysterious lowest layers of the sun's atmosphere and the results thus far are nothing short of amazing. The data is crisp and clear, showing unprecedented detail of this little-observed region.

The region of the sun IRIS is observing, the lower atmosphere, and how it powers the sun's scorching upper atmosphere, known as the coronoa, is not well understood. Jay M. Pasachoff, an astronomy professor at Williams College called it "one of the important unsolved problems of astrophysics." As Alexis explained when IRIS launched:

The sun is powered by fusion reactions at its core in which hydrogen atoms fuse together into helium, releasing tremendous energy in the process. That energy moves out from the core to the surface of the sun, called the photosphere. The temperature there is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

As you continue to move out from the sun, we cross upwards into the corona, where a very strange thing happens: the temperature jumps to a million degrees. That is to say, the atmosphere of the sun is thousands of times hotter than its surface.

To consider how weird this is, imagine you light your stove and the area farther away from the heat source is actually hotter than the regions closer in. That's not normally how heat flows. And yet, on the sun, that is exactly how it works, and scientists just aren't sure why.

Scientists are hoping that what they see in the IRIS data will help them understand those mechanics.

The picture from IRIS captures the activity in a region marked by two sunspots (seen as dark patches at the upper left and lower right). NASA additionally released a video showing the early IRIS images in motion, slowed 40 percent (and looped four times):

For a sense of what we've been able to see of that region until now, take a look at this picture from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (a bit more zoomed out):

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H/t @jtotheizzoe

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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