IRIS has observed the largest solar flare since its launch, says NASA in a recent report. The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) began observing the output of energy from the sun in spectrum’s that are invisible to the naked eye, particularly x-rays and light particles. A solar flare is a large burst of x-ray and light energy that streams out into space, but scientists have been trying to determine their cause for years. It is known that fluctuations in the sun’s magnetic field are related, so it is theorized that the field is responsible for shaping and directing the flow of hot plasma and solar material that compose the star. Solar flares affect the Earth by increasing the risk of sunburns, scrambling cell phone calls, and sometimes knocking out wireless networks entirely. Although flares happen fairly frequently, the brunt of the energy of small ones is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, meaning that the effects of only particularly powerful flares are noticed by the average person.
When NASA scientists observed the recent large flare they were debating what part of the sun they should focus IRIS on. Usually the craft observes the lower portions of the sun’s atmosphere near its core, known as the chromosphere, believed to be the area responsible for how materials and energy move through the sun’s layers. Despite the vast capabilities of IRIS, it is only able to focus on one area of the sun at a time, meaning that scientists must choose very carefully what area to observe in order to collect the most useful data possible. Just before the flare emerged, scientists detected an area of magnetic disturbance in the chromosphere and directed IRIS to record the result. Soon enough, a solar flare, the largest IRIS had ever recorded since its launch, occurred, sending a massive burst of x-ray and light radiation though the sun;s magnetic field and into space from the heart of the area IRIS was watching. NASA scientists hope that the data gathered during the display will help them to understand how different temperatures and solar materials within the mass of the sun interact with each other to inhibit or encourage solar flares.
IRIS uses complex computer imaging software to turn the data collected by its spectrograph and wide range temperature sensors into data scientists can use to track solar plumes and see where in their journey from the core of the sun to its outer edges they gain the most energy and heat. Learning more about the inner layers of the sun, from what they are made of to how they react to each other, will help to reveal the specific densities, velocities, and temperatures of wavelengths, allowing more finely tuned advice in issues from recommended exposure limits for humans to potential radiation damage for electronics and networks. The IRIS hardware was launched by Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics, with NASA in charge of mission operations and data management, and now that IRIS has observed its largest solar flare since its launch,the event promises to be quite illuminating.
By Daniel O’Brien