The Sun is Actually One of the Most Difficult Places to Reach in the Solar System. Here’s how the Parker Solar Probe Will Do It

When it comes to exploring our Solar System, there are few missions more ambitious than those that seek to study the Sun. While NASA and other space agencies have been observing the Sun for decades, the majority of these missions were conducted in orbit around Earth. To date, the closest any probes have gotten to the Sun were the Helios 1 and 2 probes, which studied the Sun during the 1970s from inside Mercury’s orbit at perihelion.

NASA intends to change all that with the Parker Solar Probe, the space probe that recently launched from Cape Canaveral, which will revolutionize our understanding of the Sun by entering it’s atmosphere (aka. the corona). Over the next seven years, the probe will use Venus’ gravity to conduct a series of slingshots that will gradually bring it closer the Sun than any mission in the history of spaceflight!

The spacecraft lifted off at 3:31 a.m. EDT on Sunday August 12th, from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. At 5:33 a.m., the mission operations manager reported that the spacecraft was healthy and operating normally. Over the course of the next week, it will begin deploying its instruments in preparation for its science mission.

Once inside the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe will employ an advanced suite of instruments to revolutionize our understanding of the Sun’s atmosphere and the origin and evolution of solar wind. These and other findings will allow researchers and astronomers to improve their ability to forecast space weather events (such as solar flares), which can cause harm to astronauts and orbiting missions, disrupt radio communications and damage power grids.

As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a recent NASA press release:

“This mission truly marks humanity’s first visit to a star that will have implications not just here on Earth, but how we better understand our universe. We’ve accomplished something that decades ago, lived solely in the realm of science fiction.”

The Parker Probes mission certainly comes with its share of challenges. In addition to the incredible heat it will have to endure, there is also the challenge of simply getting there. This is due to Earth’s orbital velocity, which travels around the Sun at a speed of 30 km/s (18.64 mps) – or about 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph). Cancelling out this velocity and traveling towards the Sun would take 55 times as much energy as it would for a craft to travel to Mars.

To address this challenge, the Parker Probe has been launched by a very powerful rocket – the ULA Delta IV, which is capable of generating 9,700 kN of thrust. In addition, it will be relying on a series of gravity assists (aka. gravitational slingshots) with Venus. These will consist of the probe conducting flybys of the Sun, then circling around Venus to get a boost in speed from the force of the planet’s gravity, and then slingshoting around the Sun again.

The launch of the Parker Solar Probe atop a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 12th, 2018. Credit: Glenn Davis

Over the course of its seven-year mission, the probe will conduct seven gravity-assists with Venus and will make 24 passes of the Sun, gradually tightening its orbit in the process. Eventually, it will reach a distance of roughly 6 million km (3.8 million mi) from the Sun and fly through it’s atmosphere (aka. corona), effectively getting more than seven times closer than any spacecraft in history. In addition, the probe will be traveling at speeds of roughly 692,000 km/h (430,000 mph), which will set the record for the fastest-moving spacecraft in history.

During the first week of its journey, the spacecraft will deploy its high-gain antenna and magnetometer boom, which houses the three instruments it will use to study the Sun’s magnetic field. It will also perform the first of a two-part deployment of its five electric field antennas (aka. the FIELDS instrument suite), which will measure the properties of solar wind and help make a three-dimensional picture of the Sun’s electric fields.

Other instruments aboard the spacecraft include the Wide-Field Imager for Parker Solar Probe (WISPR), the spacecraft’s only imaging instrument. This instrument will take pictures of the large-scale structure of the corona and solar wind before the spacecraft flies through it, capturing such phenomena as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), jets, and other ejecta from the Sun.

There’s also the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons (SWEAP) investigation instrument, which consists of two other instruments – the Solar Probe Cup (SPC) and the Solar Probe Analyzers (SPAN). These will count the most abundant particles in the solar wind – electrons, protons and helium ions – and measure their velocity, density, temperature, and other properties to improve our understanding of solar wind and coronal plasma.

Then there’s the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISOIS), which relies on the EPI-Lo and EPI-Hi instruments – Energetic Particle Instruments (EPI). Using these two instruments, ISOIS will measure electrons, protons and ions across a wide range of energies to gain a better understanding of where these particles come from, how they became accelerated, and how they move throughout the Solar System.

In addition to being the first spacecraft to explore the Sun’s corona, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft named after a living scientist – Eugene Parker, the physicist who first theorized the existence of the solar wind in 1958. As Nicola Fox, the probe’s project scientist at the JHUAPL, indicated:

“Exploring the Sun’s corona with a spacecraft has been one of the hardest challenges for space exploration. We’re finally going to be able to answer questions about the corona and solar wind raised by Gene Parker in 1958 – using a spacecraft that bears his name – and I can’t wait to find out what discoveries we make. The science will be remarkable.”

Dr. Parker was on hand to witness the early morning launch of the spacecraft. In addition to its advanced suite of scientific instruments, the probe also carries a plaque dedicating the mission to Parker. This plaque, which was attached in May, includes a quote from the renowned physicist – “Let’s see what lies ahead” – and a memory card containing more than 1.1 million names submitted by the public to travel with the spacecraft to the Sun.

Instrument testing will begin in early September and last approximately four weeks, after which the Parker Solar Probe can begin science operations. On September 28th, it will conduct its first flyby of Venus and perform its first gravity assist with the planet by early October. This will cause the spacecraft to assume a 180-day orbit of the Sun, which will bring it to a distance of about 24 million km (15 million mi).

In the end, the Parker Solar Probe will attempt to answer several long-standing mysteries about the Sun. For instance, why is the Sun’s corona 300 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, what drives the supersonic solar wind that permeates the entire Solar System, and what accelerates solar energetic particles – which can reach speeds of up to half the speed of light – away from the Sun?

Close up photo of the ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket’s engines as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Glenn Davis

For sixty years, scientists have pondered these questions, but were unable to answer them since no spacecraft was capable of penetrating the Sun’s corona. Thanks to advances in thermal engineering, the Parker Solar Probe is the first spacecraft that will be able to “touch” the face of the Sun and reveal its secrets. By December, the craft will transmit its first science observations back to Earth.

As Andy Driesman, the project manager of the Parker Probe mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), expressed:

“Today’s launch was the culmination of six decades of scientific study and millions of hours of effort. Now, Parker Solar Probe is operating normally and on its way to begin a seven-year mission of extreme science.”

Understanding the dynamics of the Sun is intrinsic to understanding the history of the Solar System and the emergence of life itself. But until now, no mission has been able to get close enough to the Sun to address its greatest mysteries. By the time the Parker Solar Probe’s mission is complete, scientists expect to have learned a great deal about the phenomena that can give rise to life, and disrupt it!

Further Reading: NASA, Youtube

What Was the Carrington Event?

What Was The Carrington Event?

Isn’t modern society great? With all this technology surrounding us in all directions. It’s like a cocoon of sweet, fluffy silicon. There are chips in my fitness tracker, my bluetooth headset, mobile phone, car keys and that’s just on my body.

At all times in the Cain household, there dozens of internet devices connected to my wifi router. I’m not sure how we got to the point, but there’s one thing I know for sure, more is better. If I could use two smartphones at the same time, I totally would.

And I’m sure you agree, that without all this technology, life would be a pale shadow of its current glory. Without these devices, we’d have to actually interact with each other. Maybe enjoy the beauty of nature, or something boring like that.

It turns out, that terrible burning orb in the sky, the Sun, is fully willing and capable of bricking our precious technology. It’s done so in the past, and it’s likely to take a swipe at us in the future.

I’m talking about solar storms, of course, tremendous blasts of particles and radiation from the Sun which can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere and overwhelm anything with a wire.

Credit: NASA

In fact, we got a sneak preview of this back in 1859, when a massive solar storm engulfed the Earth and ruined our old timey technology. It was known as the Carrington Event.

Follow your imagination back to Thursday, September 1st, 1859. This was squarely in the middle of the Victorian age.

And not the awesome, fictional Steampunk Victorian age where spectacled gentleman and ladies of adventure plied the skies in their steam-powered brass dirigibles.

No, it was the regular crappy Victorian age of cholera and child labor. Technology was making huge leaps and bounds, however, and the first telegraph lines and electrical grids were getting laid down.

Imagine a really primitive version of today’s electrical grid and internet.

On that fateful morning, the British astronomer Richard Carrington turned his solar telescope to the Sun, and was amazed at the huge sunspot complex staring back at him. So impressed that he drew this picture of it.

Richard Carrington’s sketch of the sunspots seen just before the 1859 Carrington event.

While he was observing the sunspot, Carrington noticed it flash brightly, right in his telescope, becoming a large kidney-shaped bright white flare.

Carrington realized he was seeing unprecedented activity on the surface of the Sun. Within a minute, the activity died down and faded away.

And then about 5 minutes later. Aurora activity erupted across the entire planet. We’re not talking about those rare Northern Lights enjoyed by the Alaskans, Canadians and Northern Europeans in the audience. We’re talking about everyone, everywhere on Earth. Even in the tropics.

In fact, the brilliant auroras were so bright you could read a book to them.

The beautiful night time auroras was just one effect from the monster solar flare. The other impact was that telegraph lines and electrical grids were overwhelmed by the electricity pushed through their wires. Operators got electrical shocks from their telegraph machines, and the telegraph paper lit on fire.

What happened? The most powerful solar flare ever observed is what happened.

In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

A solar flare occurs because the Sun’s magnetic field lines can get tangled up in the solar atmosphere. In a moment, the magnetic fields reorganize themselves, and a huge wave of particles and radiation is released.

Flares happen in three stages. First, you get the precursor stage, with a blast of soft X-ray radiation. This is followed by the impulsive stage, where protons and electrons are accelerated off the surface of the Sun. And finally, the decay stage, with another burp of X-rays as the flare dies down.

These stages can happen in just a few seconds or drag out over an hour.

Remember those particles hurled off into space? They take several hours or a few days to reach Earth and interact with our planet’s protective magnetosphere, and then we get to see beautiful auroras in the sky.

This geomagnetic storm causes the Earth’s magnetosphere to jiggle around, which drives charges through wires back and forth, burning out circuits, killing satellites, overloading electrical grids.

Back in 1859, this wasn’t a huge deal, when our quaint technology hadn’t progressed beyond the occasional telegraph tower.

Today, our entire civilization depends on wires. There are wires in the hundreds of satellites flying overhead that we depend on for communications and navigation. Our homes and businesses are connected by an enormous electrical grid. Airplanes, cars, smartphones, this camera I’m using.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Everything is electronic, or controlled by electronics.

Think it can’t happen? We got a sneak preview back in March, 1989 when a much smaller geomagnetic storm crashed into the Earth. People as far south as Florida and Cuba could see auroras in the sky, while North America’s entire interconnected electrical grid groaned under the strain.

The Canadian province of Quebec’s electrical grid wasn’t able to handle the load and went entirely offline. For 12 hours, in the freezing Quebec winter, almost the entire province was without power. I’m telling you, that place gets cold, so this was really bad timing.

Satellites went offline, including NASA’s TDRS-1 communication satellite, which suffered 250 separate glitches during the storm.

And on July 23, 2012, a Carrington-class solar superstorm blasted off the Sun, and off into space. Fortunately, it missed the Earth, and we were spared the mayhem.

If a solar storm of that magnitude did strike the Earth, the cleanup might cost $2 trillion, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

The July 23, 2012 CME would have caused a Carrington-like event had it hit Earth. Thankfully for us and our technology, it missed. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s been 160 years since the Carrington Event, and according to ice core samples, this was the most powerful solar flare over the last 500 years or so. Solar astronomers estimate solar storms like this happen twice a millennium, which means we’re not likely to experience another one in our lifetimes.

But if we do, it’ll cause worldwide destruction of technology and anyone reliant on it. You might want to have a contingency plan with some topic starters when you can’t access the internet for a few days. Locate nearby interesting nature spots to explore and enjoy while you wait for our technological civilization to be rebuilt.

Have you ever seen an aurora in your lifetime? Give me the details of your experience in the comments.

The Photon Sieve Could Revolutionize Optics

Ever since astronomers first began using telescopes to get a better look at the heavens, they have struggled with a basic conundrum. In addition to magnification, telescopes also need to be able to resolve the small details of an object in order to help us get a better understanding of them. Doing this requires building larger and larger light-collecting mirrors, which requires instruments of greater size, cost and complexity.

However, scientists working at NASA Goddard’s Space Flight Center are working on an inexpensive alternative. Instead of relying on big and impractical large-aperture telescopes, they have proposed a device that could resolve tiny details while being a fraction of the size. It’s known as the photon sieve, and it is being specifically developed to study the Sun’s corona in the ultraviolet.

Basically, the photon sieve is a variation on the Fresnel zone plate, a form of optics that consist of tightly spaced sets of rings that alternate between the transparent and the opaque. Unlike telescopes which focus light through refraction or reflection, these plates cause light to diffract through transparent openings. On the other side, the light overlaps and is then focused onto a specific point – creating an image that can be recorded.

This image shows how the photon sieve brings red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, but produces exotic diffraction patterns when viewed from the side. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
Image showing the photon sieve bringing red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, and producing exotic diffraction patterns. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

The photon sieve operates on the same basic principles, but with a slightly more sophisticated twist. Instead of thin openings (i.e. Fresnel zones), the sieve consists of a circular silicon lens that is dotted with millions of tiny holes. Although such a device would be potentially useful at all wavelengths, the Goddard team is specifically developing the photon sieve to answer a 50-year-old question about the Sun.

Essentially, they hope to study the Sun’s corona to see what mechanism is heating it. For some time, scientists have known that the corona and other layers of the Sun’s atmosphere (the chromosphere, the transition region, and the heliosphere) are significantly hotter than its surface. Why this is has remained a mystery. But perhaps, not for much longer.

As Doug Rabin, the leader of the Goddard team, said in a NASA press release:

“This is already a success… For more than 50 years, the central unanswered question in solar coronal science has been to understand how energy transported from below is able to heat the corona. Current instruments have spatial resolutions about 100 times larger than the features that must be observed to understand this process.”

With support from Goddard’s Research and Development program, the team has already fabricated three sieves, all of which measure 7.62 cm (3 inches) in diameter. Each device contains a silicon wafer with 16 million holes, the sizes and locations of which were determined using a fabrication technique called photolithography – where light is used to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a surface.

Doug Rabin, Adrian Daw, John O’Neill, Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac, and Kevin Denis are developing an unconventional optic that could give scientists the resolution they need to see finer details of the physics powering the sun’s corona. Other team members include Joe Davila, Tom Widmyer, and Greg Woytko, who are not pictured. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
The Goddard team led by Doug Rabin (left) is working on a new optic device that will drastically reduce the size of telescopes. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

However, in the long-run, they hope to create a sieve that will measure 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter. With an instrument of this size, they believe they will be able to achieve up to 100 times better angular resolution in the ultraviolet than NASA’s high-resolution space telescope – the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This would be just enough to start getting some answers from the Sun’s corona.

In the meantime, the team plans to begin testing to see if the sieve can operate in space, a process which should take less than a year. This will include whether or not it can survive the intense g-forces of a space launch, as well as the extreme environment of space. Other plans include marrying the technology to a series of CubeSats so a two-spacecraft formation-flying mission could be mounted to study the Sun’s corona.

In addition to shedding light on the mysteries of the Sun, a successful photon sieve could revolution optics as we know it. Rather than being forced to send massive and expensive apparatus’ into space (like the Hubble Space Telescope or the James Webb Telescope), astronomers could get all the high-resolution images they need from devices small enough to stick aboard a satellite measuring no more than a few square meters.

This would open up new venues for space research, allowing private companies and research institutions the ability to take detailed photos of distant stars, planets, and other celestial objects. It would also constitute another crucial step towards making space exploration affordable and accessible.

Further Reading: NASA

The Sun

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image shows large magnetically active regions and a pair of curving erupting prominences on June 28, 2000 during the current solar cycle 23 maximum. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. Magnetically active regions cause the principal total solar irradiance variations during each solar cycle. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)

The Sun is the center of the Solar System and the source of all life and energy here on Earth. It accounts for more than 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System and it’s gravity dominates all the planets and objects that orbit it. Since the beginning of history, human beings have understood the Sun’s importance to our world, it’s seasons, the diurnal cycle, and the life-cycle of plants.

Because of this, the Sun has been at the center of many ancient culture’s mythologies and systems of worship. From the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas to the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Druids, the Sun was a central deity because it was seen as the bringer of all light and life. In time, our understanding of the Sun has changed and become increasingly empirical. But that has done nothing to diminish it’s significance.

Continue reading “The Sun”

Solar ‘Bombs’ And Mini-Tornadoes Spotted By Sun-Watching Spacecraft

My, the Sun is a violent place. I mean, we knew that already, but there’s even more evidence for that using new data from a brand-new NASA spacecraft. There’s talk now about tornadoes and jets and even “bombs” swirling amid our Sun’s gassy environment.

A huge set of results from NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft reveals the true nature of a mysterious transition zone between Sun’s surface and the corona, or atmosphere. Besides the pretty fireworks and videos, these phenomena are telling scientists more about how the Sun moves energy from the center to the outskirts. And, it could tell us more about how stars work in general.

The results are published in five papers yesterday (Oct. 15) in Science magazine. Below, a brief glimpse of what each of these papers revealed about our closest star.

Bombs

This is a heck of a lot of energy packed in here. Raging at temperatures of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit (111,093 degrees Celsius) are heat “pockets” — also called “bombs” because they release energy quickly. They were found lower in the atmosphere than expected. The paper is here (led by Hardi Peter of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.)

Tornadoes

It’s a twist! You can see some structures in the chromosphere, just above the Sun’s surface, showing gas spinning like a tornado. They spin around as fast as 12 miles (19 kilometers) a second, which is considered slow-moving on the Sun. The paper is here (led by Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin in California).

High-speed jets

Artist's impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth's magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the solar wind from the sun (left) interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere (right). Credit: NASA

How does the solar wind — that constant stream of charged particles that sometimes cause aurora on Earth — come to be? IRIS spotted high-speed jets of material moving faster than ever observed, 90 miles (145 kilometers) a second. Since these jets are emerging in spots where the magnetic field is weaker (called coronal holes), scientists suspect this could be a source of the solar wind since the particles are thought to originate from there. The paper is here (led by Hui Tian at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.)

Nanoflares

A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA's GSFC, SDO AIA Team
A solar filament erupts with a coronal mass ejection in this image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in August 2012. Credit: NASA’s GSFC, SDO AIA Team

Those solar flares the Sun throws off happen when magnetic field lines cross and then snap back into place, flinging particles into space. Nanoflares could do the same thing to heat up the corona, and that’s something else that IRIS is examining. The paper is here (led by Paola Testa, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)

Structures and more

And here is the transition region in glorious high-definition. Improving on data from the Skylab space station in the 1970s (bottom of video), you can see all sorts of mini-structures on the Sun. The more we learn about these 2,000-mile (3,220-km) objects, the better we’ll understand how heating moves through the Sun. The paper is here (led by Viggo Hansteen, at the University of Oslo in Norway.)

Source: NASA

IRIS Glimpses an Elusive Region of the Sun

An innovative solar observatory is adding a key piece to the puzzle of the enigma that is our Sun.

Its two of key questions in heliophysics: why does our Sun have a corona? And why is the temperature of the corona actually higher than the surface of the Sun?

This week, researchers released results from the preliminary first six months of data from NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, known as IRIS. The findings were presented at the Fall American Geophysical Union Meeting this past Monday.

IRIS was launched on June 27th of this year on a Pegasus-XL rocket deployed from the belly of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft flying out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. IRIS can focus in on a very specific interface region of the Sun sandwiched between the dazzling solar photosphere and the transition to the corona. To accomplish this, IRIS employs an ultraviolet slit spectrograph looking at ionized gas spectra.

IRIS in the clean room. The spacecraft is only about 2 metres in length, about the height of a person. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).
IRIS in the clean room. The spacecraft is only about 2 metres in length, about the height of a person. (Credit: Lockheed Martin).

“The quality of images and spectra we are receiving is amazing,” IRIS Principal Investigator Alan Title said in a recent press release from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. While other missions may take over a decade to go from the drawing board to the launch pad, IRIS was developed and deployed into Low Earth Orbit in just 44 months.

IRIS offers scientists a new tool to probe the Sun and a complimentary instrument to platforms such as Hinode, the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. In fact, IRIS has a better resolution than SDO’s AIA imagers or Hinode when it comes to this key solar interface region. IRIS has a 20x greater resolution in time, and 25x the spatial resolution of any former space-based UV spectrometer deployed.

“We are seeing rich and unprecedented images of violent events in which gases are accelerated to very high velocities while being rapidly heated to hundreds of thousands of degrees,” said Lockheed Martin science lead on the IRIS mission Bart De Pontieu. These observations are key to backing up theoretical models of solar dynamics as well as testing and formulating new ones of how our Sun works.

IRIS bridges this crucial gap between the photosphere and the lower chromosphere of the Sun. While the solar surface roils at relatively placid  6,000 degrees Celsius, temperatures rise into the range of 2-3 million degrees Celsius as you move up through the transition region and into the corona.

Two key solar phenomena that are of concern to solar researchers can be examined by IRIS in detail. One is the formation of prominences, which show up as long looping swirls of solar material rising up from the surface of the Sun. Prominences can be seen from backyard telescopes at hydrogen alpha wavelengths. IRIS can catch and track their early modeling with unprecedented resolution. Images released from IRIS show the fine structure of targeted prominences as they evolve and rise off the surface of the Sun. When a prominence and accompanying coronal mass ejection is launched in our direction, disruption of our local space environment caused by massive solar storm can result.

Slit jaw spectra images (the two strips to the left) and imaging a spicules 9to the right as seen by IRIS. (Credit: NASA/IRIS).
Slit jaw spectra images (the two strips to the left) and imaging of spicules (to the right) as seen by IRIS. (Credit: NASA/IRIS).

The second phenomenon targeted by IRIS is the formation of spicules, which are giant columns of gas rising from the photosphere. Although the spicules look like hair-fine structures through Earth-based solar telescopes, they can be several hundred kilometres wide and as long as the Earth. Short-lived, spicules race up from the surface of the Sun at up to 240,000 kilometres per hour and seem to play a key role in energy and heat transfer from the solar surface up through the atmosphere. IRIS is giving us a view of the evolution of spicules for the first time, and they’re proving to be even more complex than theory previously suggested.

“We see discrepancies between these observations and the models, and that is great news for advancing knowledge. By seeing something we don’t understand, we have a chance of learning something new,” Said University of Oslo astrophysicist Mats Carlsson.

Like SDO and SOHO, data and images from IRIS are free for the public to access online. Though the field of view for IRIS is a narrow 2’ to 4’ arc minutes on a side – the solar disk spans about 30’ as seen from the Earth – IRIS gives us a refined view of “where the action is.”

Where is IRIS looking? This snapshot gives some context of the IRIS field of view (green and red boxes) and black and white insets versus SDO's AIA full disk view of the Sun. (Credit: NASA/SDO/IRIS).
Where is IRIS looking? This snapshot gives some context of the IRIS field of view (green and red boxes) and black and white insets versus SDO’s AIA full disk view of the Sun. (Credit: NASA/SDO/IRIS).

And this all comes at an interesting time, as our nearest star crosses the sputtering solar maximum for Cycle #24.

The equivalent of 50 million CPU hours were utilized in constructing and modeling what IRIS sees. The reconstruction was an international effort, spanning the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe, the Norwegian supercomputing collaboration, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

IRIS also faced the additional challenge of weathering a 2.5 week period of inactivity due to the U.S. government shutdown this fall. Potential impacts due to sequestration remain an issue, though small explorer missions such as IRIS demonstrate how we can do more with less.

“We’ve made a giant step forward in characterizing the heat transfer properties of this region between the visible surface and the corona, which is key to understanding how the outer atmosphere of the Sun exists, and is key to understanding the outer atmosphere that the Earth lies in,” said Alan Title, referring to the tenuous heliosphere of the Sun extending out through the solar system.

Understanding the inner working of our Sun is vital: no other astronomical body has as big an impact on life here on Earth.

IRIS is slated for a two-year mission, though as is the case with most space-based platforms, researchers will work to get every bit of usefulness out of the spacecraft that they can. And it’s already returning some first-rate science at a relatively low production cost. This is all knowledge that will help us as a civilization live with and understand our often tempestuous star.

 

Watch the Sun Split Apart

Here’s your amazing oh-my-gosh-space-is-so-cool video of the day — a “canyon of fire” forming on the Sun after the liftoff and detachment of an enormous filament on September 29-30. A new video, created from images captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and assembled by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shows the entire dramatic event unfolding in all its mesmerizing magnetic glory.

Watch it below:

Solarrific! (And I highly suggest full-screening it in HD.) That filament was 200,000 miles long, and the rift that formed afterwards was well over a dozen Earths wide!

Captured in various wavelengths of light by SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) the video shows the solar schism in different layers of the Sun’s corona, which varies greatly in temperature at different altitudes.

According to the description from Karen Fox at GSFC:

“The red images shown in the movie help highlight plasma at temperatures of 90,000° F and are good for observing filaments as they form and erupt. The yellow images, showing temperatures at 1,000,000° F, are useful for observing material coursing along the sun’s magnetic field lines, seen in the movie as an arcade of loops across the area of the eruption. The browner images at the beginning of the movie show material at temperatures of 1,800,000° F, and it is here where the canyon of fire imagery is most obvious.”

Now, there’s not really any “fire” on the Sun — that’s just an illustrative term. What we’re actually seeing here is plasma contained by powerful magnetic fields that constantly twist and churn across the Sun’s surface and well up from its interior. The Sun is boiling with magnetic fields, and when particularly large ones erupt from deep below its surface we get the features we see as sunspots, filaments, and prominences.

When those fields break, the plasma they contained gets blasted out into space as coronal mass ejections… and this is what typically happens when one hits Earth. (But it could be much worse.)

Hey, that’s what it’s like living with a star!

Stay up to date on the latest solar events on the SDO mission page here.

Our Gorgeous, Graceful, Gradient Sun

Here’s a mesmerizing video from the folks over at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s visualization studio showing the Sun in a whole new light… well, a reprocessed light anyway.

Using what’s called a gradient filter, images of the Sun can be adjusted to highlight the intricate details of its dynamic atmosphere. Magnetic activity that’s invisible to human vision can be brought into view, showing the powerful forces in play within the Sun’s corona and helping researchers better understand how it affects space weather. (Plus they sure are pretty!)

Compiled into a video, these images reveal the hidden beauty — and power — of our home star in action.

Video courtesy NASA/GSFC

HI-C Returns Most Detailed Images Ever of the Sun’s Corona

NASA’s High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) mission, launched Wednesday, July 11 from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, successfully returned (as promised!) the highest-resolution images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired. These images of the dynamic million-degree region of the Sun’s atmosphere will provide scientists with more information on the complex activity found near the Sun’s surface and how it affects space weather throughout the Solar System.

Launched aboard a 58-foot-tall (17 meter) Black Brant sounding rocket, Hi-C was equipped with exceptionally well-made mirrors — some of the finest ever made, according to the mission report. These mirrors allowed Hi-C to image a section of the Sun’s corona in extreme ultraviolet light with a resolution of 0.1 arcsec/pixel, distinguishing features as small as 135 miles (217 km) across. That’s five times the resolution of SDO images, or any previous space telescope for that matter.

That’s like the difference between watching a program on a tube television and an HD flatscreen monitor.

The image below shows the same region as seen by SDO’s AIA array and Hi-C’s innovative mirror-and-“light-maze” system:

Read: NASA to Launch the Finest Mirrors Ever Made

“These revolutionary images of the sun demonstrate the key aspects of NASA’s sounding rocket program, namely the training of the next generation of principal investigators, the development of new space technologies, and scientific advancements,” said Barbara Giles, director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

During its 620-second suborbital flight, Hi-C took 165 images of a section of the Sun’s corona 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across, capturing wavelengths of light at 193 Angstroms emitted by the Sun’s super-hot 1.5 million kelvin corona. The images were focused on a large sunspot region, whose position was accurately predicted 27 days prior to launch.

“We have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time,” said Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “Because of the intense solar activity we’re seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals.”

Even though Hi-C’s flight only lasted ten minutes, of which 330 seconds were used for acquiring images, the amount of data gathered will be used by researchers for months.

“Even though this mission was only a few minutes long, it marks a big breakthrough in coronal studies,” said Leon Golub, lead investigator from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “The Hi-C flight might be the most productive five minutes I’ve ever spent.”

Watch a 10-second video of the region shown above, seen from both Hi-C and SDO:

Read more about the Hi-C mission results here.

Image credits: NASA

NASA To Launch The Finest Mirrors Ever Made

This Wednesday NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun.

HI-C will use a state-of-the-art imaging system to focus on a region near the center of the Sun about 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across. During its brief flight — only ten minutes long — HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

While SDO collects images in ten wavelengths, however, HI-C will focus on just one: 193 Angstroms, a wavelength of ultraviolet radiation that best reveals the structures of the Sun’s corona present in temperatures of 1.5 million kelvin. And although HI-C’s mirrors aren’t any larger than SDO’s — about 9.5 inches in diameter — they are “some of the finest ever made.” In addition, an interior “maze” between mirrors effectively increases HI-C’s focal length.

Researchers expect HI-C’s super-smooth mirrors to resolve coronal structures as small as 100 miles (160 km) across (0.1 arcsec/pixel).

“Other instruments in space can’t resolve things that small, but they do suggest – after detailed computer analysis of the amount of light in any given pixel – that structures in the sun’s atmosphere are about 100 miles across,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for HI-C at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “And we also have theories about the shapes of structures in the atmosphere, or corona, that expect that size. HI-C will be the first chance we have to see them.”

One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.

“This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun’s corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface,” said Marshall’s Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, heliophysicist and principle investigator on the mission.

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top image: A Black Brant sounding rocket containing NASA’s HI-C mission will launch on July 11, 2012 to observe the sun’s corona. (NASA) Bottom image: TRACE image of the Sun at a resolution of 0.5 arcsec/pixel. HI-C will have a resolution 5 times finer.