Space telescope to unravel mysteries of solar wind

28 June 2013
By Edd Gent
Mobile version
Share |
An Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket carrying the IRIS spacecraft takes off attached to a modified L-1011 aircraft (CREDIT: NASA)

An Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket carrying the IRIS spacecraft takes off attached to a modified L-1011 aircraft (CREDIT: NASA)

A space telescope launched today could improve our understanding of the solar wind and how it can affect technology on Earth.

The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft was launched into orbit early this morning on a mission to determine how the sun heats its atmosphere to millions of degrees, sending off rivers of particles that define the boundaries of the solar system.

The study is far from academic. Solar activity directly impacts Earth's climate and the space environment beyond the planet's atmosphere and solar storms can knock out power grids, disrupt radio signals and interfere with communications, navigation and other satellites in orbit.

"We live in a very complex society and the sun has a role to play in it," said physicist Alan Title, with Lockheed Martin Space Systems Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, which designed and built the telescope.

The mission is designed to observe how solar material moves, gathers energy and heats up as it travels through a little-understood region in the sun's lower atmosphere.

This interface region between the sun's photosphere and corona powers its dynamic million-degree atmosphere and drives the solar wind and is also is where most of the sun's ultraviolet emissions, which impact the near-Earth space environment and Earth's climate, are generated.

An enduring mystery the mission will try to unravel is how it manages to release energy from its relatively cool 5,500°C surface into an atmosphere that can reach up to 2.8 million °C .

At its core, the sun is essentially a giant fusion engine that melds hydrogen atoms into helium. As expected, temperatures cool as energy travels outward through the layers. But then in the lower atmosphere, known as the chromosphere, temperatures heat up again.

Pictures and data relayed by the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, telescope may finally provide some answers about how that happens.

The 1.2m long, 204kg observatory will be watching the sun from a vantage point about 400 miles above Earth and is designed to capture detailed images of light moving from the sun's surface, known as the photosphere, into the chromosphere. Temperatures peak in the sun's outer atmosphere, the corona.

"We are thrilled to add IRIS to the suite of NASA missions studying the sun," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington. "IRIS will help scientists understand the mysterious and energetic interface between the surface and corona of the sun."

The telescope was launched at 10:27pm EDT yesterday (2.27am GMT today) aboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket, an air-launched system that is carried aloft by a modified L-1011 aircraft that took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California about 57 minutes before launch.

The rocket was released from beneath the belly of the plane at an altitude of about 39,000 feet (11,900 meters) before it ignited to carry the telescope into orbit.

IRIS, which cost about $145 million including the launch service, is designed to last for two years.

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1606

"Where would Frankenstein and his creative mind fit into today's workplace? Should we fear technological developments or embrace them?"

E&T jobs

  • Graduate Electrical Engineers

    AECOM
    • United Kingdom and Ireland
    • Competitive

    Due to the diverse nature of our business there are many different teams each with very different responsibilities.

    • Recruiter: AECOM

    Apply for this job

  • Network Innovation Engineer / Analyst - UK Power Sector

    Premium job

    Nortech Management Ltd
    • Birmingham, West Midlands or Pershore (Worcestershire)
    • £30,000 - £35,000 (depending on experience) + benefits

    Network Innovation Engineer / Analyst to join a team of talented technology enthusiasts who design and support the low carbon networks of the future.

    • Recruiter: Nortech Management Ltd

    Apply for this job

  • Electrical Engineer with Strong telecoms background

    Premium job

    Sure South Atlantic Ltd
    • Falkland Islands

    Sure South Atlantic Ltd currently has a unique engineering opportunity in their Falkland Islands office. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, teeming ...

    • Recruiter: Sure South Atlantic Ltd

    Apply for this job

  • Cyber, Communication, Information and Data Scientist roles

    Premium job

    Dstl
    • Porton Down, Salisbury
    • Competitive salaries

    Information is everything. Use it to serve your country and help keep us safe.

    • Recruiter: Dstl

    Apply for this job

  • Production Engineer

    Premium job

    Compact Engineering
    • Thirsk / Leeds / Banbury / Colchester / Cambridge
    • Salary will be competitive and commensurate with experience, knowledge, aptitude and capability

    A Production Engineer with some knowledge and understanding of radiant energy transfer.

    • Recruiter: Compact Engineering

    Apply for this job

  • Electronics Engineer

    Premium job

    Nikon Metrology Europe
    • Tring, Hertfordshire

    Nikon Metrology is looking for an Electronics Engineer to join our Electronics Team based in Tring (UK).

    • Recruiter: Nikon Metrology Europe

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Manager

    BAE Systems
    • Hampshire, England, Portsmouth
    • Competitive package

    Would you like to play a vital role in managing and implementing the correct governance in order to enable BAE Systems to provide assurance and integrity of supply chain data? We currently have a vacancy for an Engineering Manager - Product Integrity

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Project Manager - Electrical & Automation

    Nestle
    • York, North Yorkshire
    • c£45,000 + Car Allowance + Bonus + Excellent Benefits

    Nestlé Product Technology Centre in York currently has an excellent opportunity for an Engineering Project Manager

    • Recruiter: Nestle

    Apply for this job

  • Consultant Engineer - Test

    BAE Systems
    • Farnborough, Hampshire, England
    • Negotiable

    Consultant Engineer - Test Would you like to be a lead within an exciting team working on one of the UK's largest defence projects? We currently have a vacancy for a Consultant Engineer - Test at our site in Ash Vale. As a Consultant Engineer - Test, you

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • ELECTRICAL PROJECT ENGINEER

    SSE
    • Reading, Berkshire
    • SALARY: £37,588 TO £55,669 + CAR (SSE8/9), DEPENDING ON SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE

    SSE are looking to recruit an Electrical Project Engineer into office in Reading

    • Recruiter: SSE

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶

Subscribe

Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T