NASA launched the Iris satellite late on Thursday to explore the mysteries of the sun. Specifically, it will explore the glowing white ring of the sun located between the surface and the corona that’s visible during eclipses and which drives solar winds.
The Iris satellite’s mission is to both explore this little-studied region of the sun and to better forecast space weather which can disrupt the Earth’s communications systems.
In mythology, the goddess Iris represented the rainbow and was the messenger of the gods. The satellite was launched using a Pegasus rocket which was dropped from an airplane that took off around sunset from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast.
When the airplane was approximately 100 miles off the coast and at an altitude of 39,000 feet, it released the Pegasus rocket. The rocket then ignited its engine for the 13-minute climb into space.
When the mission controllers at NASA received word that Iris separated from the rocket as planned and unfurled its solar panels, ready to begin its two-year mission, they clapped in celebration.
“We’re thrilled,” NASA launch director Tim Dunn said.
Though the actual launch of the satellite went smoothly, there were some tense moments when NASA’s mission control temporarily lost communication with it. Ground controllers tracked Iris by relying on other satellites orbiting Earth.
Iris isn’t the first satellite which NASA has launched to collect data about the sun. The sun-observing satellites which came before it have increased our knowledge about the sun immensely, and sent back brilliant pictures of solar flares.
The Iris satellite is seven feet long and weighs 400 pounds. Also, an ultraviolet telescope is on board that can take high-resolution images every few seconds.
The goal of the satellite’s mission is to learn more about how this mysterious region drives solar wind. Solar wind is a stream of charged particles spewing from the sun. Also, by learning more about this region, NASA wants to be able to better predict space weather that can disrupt communications signals on Earth.
According to NASA program scientist Jeffrey Newmark said before the launch:
This is a very difficult region to understand and observe. We haven’t had the technical capabilities before now to really zoom in and peer at it up close.”
What did the Iris mission cost?
The mission cost taxpayers an estimated $182 million, which is cheap by NASA standards.The space agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center is in charge of managing the mission.
Iris won’t immediately begin to broadcast back its observations. Engineers will spend a month making sure the satellite is in perfect health before powering on its ultraviolet telescope.
Technicians at the Air Force base were forced into delaying the mission by a day so that they could restore power to launch range equipment after a weekend outage cut electricity to a large part of the central coast.
The Pegasus is a winged rocket designed for launching small satellites. Pegasus rockets were first flown in 1990. Since then, they have also been used to accelerate vehicles in hypersonic flight programs.
Written by: Douglas Cobb