NASA’s IRIS captures images of sun’s most powerful solar flare

February 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

The largest solar flare yet encountered by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), which snapped a gorgeous image of the event on Jan. 28., may help astronomers unravel the secrets of these massive solar eruptions.

Solar flares consist of high-energy particles like electrons, ions, and protons that burst from the sun in a gigantic firestorm that billows out into space. The intense light emitted from the flares consists of radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including gamma rays, and x-rays. But scientists still don’t know precisely what causes them.

NASA launched IRIS in June of last year in order to investigate the sun, especially that layer of the sun’s lower atmosphere, just above the surface, called the chromosphere–a region key to the regulation of the flow of energy and material released by the sun as they travel from the sun’s surface into space.

Because it would be impossible for the space probe to view the entire sun at the same time, scientists must decide which region might provide the most useful information, NASA said in a news release.

On Jan. 28, scientists using IRIS spotted a magnetically active region on the sun and focused IRIS on it in order to find out “how the solar material behaved under intense magnetic forces,” NASA said. At 2:40 p.m. EST an M-class flare–only the X-class flare is stronger–erupted, spewing light and x-rays into space.

IRIS’s spectrograph is able to separate out the light it sees into its individual wavelengths, which tell scientists the different temperatures, density, and velocity of the flare material. NASA says the spectrograph on IRIS “was pointed right into the heart of this flare when it reached its peak.” The data obtained can help scientists better understand how different temperatures of material flow, which will give more insight into how flares occur.

The IRIS mission is managed by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. is responsible for mission operations and the ground data system.

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