The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph observatory, designed and built by Lockheed Martin for NASA, has produced its first images and spectra of a little understood region of the sun through which the energy that supports the Sun’s hot corona is transported.
IRIS was launched June 27, 2013, and the front door of the IRIS telescope was opened July 17.
“The quality of images and spectra we are receiving from IRIS is amazing. This is just what we were hoping for,” said Dr. Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator and physicist at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory 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.”
The IRIS mission has long-term implications for understanding the genesis of solar storms. By tracing the flow of energy and plasma through the interface region – between the solar surface and the solar corona – where most of the sun’s ultraviolet emissions are generated, IRIS data will allow scientists to study and model a region of the sun that has yet to reveal its secrets.
“With IRIS, we now have a unique opportunity to provide significant missing pieces in our understanding of energy transport on the sun,” said Dr. Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator and physicist at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif. “The complex processes and enormous contrasts of density, temperature and magnetic field within this interface region require instrument and modeling capabilities that are now finally within reach.”
The evolution of IRIS from concept to space-based solar observatory was remarkably rapid. The contract was awarded to the Lockheed Martin-led IRIS team June 23, 2009. Four years and four days later, IRIS was in orbit. Just 20 days after launch, engineers in the IRIS Mission Operations Center at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., downlinked the initial images.
“The IRIS mission has been, from inception, an enormous international collaborative development effort,” said Title. “Our IRIS team was formed to design the mission and prepare the initial proposal. We have worked together seamlessly ever since.”
The IRIS Observatory was designed and the mission managed by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory of the Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, with contributions from LM Civil Space. The IRIS instrument was integrated to the spacecraft, and observatory testing was performed by an integrated team of engineers from the ATC and Civil Space at the LM Space Systems Sunnyvale facility. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics built the telescope.
In parallel with payload development, there was international collaboration in calculating enormous numerical simulations of the interface region, mostly using models from the University of Oslo. These simulations are key to interpreting the IRIS observations. The University of Oslo and Lockheed Martin also worked together in creating tools for execution of the science mission, enabling scientists to plan observations on the complex and flexible IRIS instrument more easily. Kongsberg Satellite Service under an ESA PRODEX contract with the Norwegian Space Centre captures IRIS data with their antennas in Svalbard, inside the Arctic Circle, in northern Norway.
NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., is responsible for mission operations and the ground data system. The Ames Pleiades supercomputer was used to carry out many of the numerical simulations. IRIS science data is managed by the Joint Science Operations Center of the Solar Dynamics Observatory – run by Stanford and Lockheed Martin – where scientists can use the same set of tools to access data from IRIS, SDO and Hinode instruments. Montana State University faculty and students assisted in the design of the spectrograph and are involved in IRIS science operations and data analysis. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center acquired the Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus launch vehicle and managed the Vandenberg launch. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., oversees the Small Explorers program.
NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph 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 ever 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.”
IRIS is a NASA Small Explorer mission that was launched on June 27. 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. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., 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.