In late June 2013, NASA will launch a new set of eyes to offer the most detailed look ever of the sun’s lower atmosphere, called the interface region. This region is believed to play a crucial role in powering the sun’s dynamic million-degree atmosphere, the corona. The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph or IRIS mission will provide the best resolution so far of the widest range of temperatures for of the interface region, an area that has historically been difficult to study.
"This region is crucial for understanding how the corona gets so hot,” said Joe Davila, IRIS project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "For the first time, we will have the capability to observe it at fundamental physical scale sizes and see details that have previously been hidden."
IRIS’s capabilities are uniquely tailored to unravel the interface region by providing both high-resolution images and a kind of data known as spectra.
For its high-resolution images, IRIS will capture data on about one percent of the sun at a time. While these are relatively small snapshots, IRIS will be able to see very fine features, as small as 150 miles across.
“We have some great space observatories currently looking at the sun,” said Bart DePontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Calif. “But when it comes to the interface region, we’ve never been able to resolve individual structures. We have been able only to see conglomerates of various structures. Now we will finally be able to observe the details.”
IRIS’s images will be three to four times as detailed as the images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory – though SDO can observe the whole sun at once. SDO’s wavelengths are not tailored, however, to see the interface region. Scientists can use IRIS observations to hone in on smaller details while working with the larger instruments, such as SDO or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hinode, to capture images of the entire sun. Together, the observatories will explore how the corona works and impacts Earth – SDO and Hinode monitoring the solar surface and outer atmosphere, with IRIS watching the region in between.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.