The apple of my IRIS, or on the Sun’s chromosphere

Ever wonder how the solar atmosphere is energized?  NASA and Lockheed Martin may provide an answer with the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) explorer satellite slated to launch at the end of 2010.

Iris_logo As promised, I'm going to give some tidbits of info regarding the NASA missions which I have been supporting lately.  My most recent excitement at work was a business trip to the Orbital Sciences headquarters in Sterling, Virginia.  Orbital Sciences was recently awarded as the Launch Service Contractor, which means that their Pegasus air-launched rocket will be tasked with delivering the IRIS spacecraft into the desired orbit. 

I was there for what is called the "Mission Integration Working Group" (an aside…the common term "working group" at first sounds very productive and intense.  After two years of various working groups [Payload Safety, Ground Operations, Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels, Software Assurance, etc…..] this term often serves more as an optimistic euphamism for "meeting). (Image right: Lockheed Martin)

In any case, working group or meeting, I participated in this "kickoff" gathering of personnel from Orbital Sciences, Lockheed Martin, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (overseeing spacecraft development) and NASA's Kennedy Space Center (overseeing integration of IRIS with Pegasus).  

Launch_PegasusThe explanation of the science mission, as usual, blew my mind.  Basically, the instrumentation on IRIS point at the sun in order to capture the ultraviolet light around the sun as well as high resolution images of the sun.  It is focusing on an area called the chromosphere and transition
region of the Sun.  Now, don't ask me to explain much more than that, but according to Lockheed Martin's IRIS site, the chromosphere is "a complex dynamic interface region between the
photosphere and corona. In this region, all but a few percent of the
non-radiative energy leaving the Sun is converted into heat and
radiation. Here, magnetic field and plasma exert comparable forces,
resulting in a complex, dynamic region whose understanding remains a
challenge."  Whew that's a mouthful.  From the data hoped to be gathered by IRIS, the science team will try to make connections between the flow of energy and plasma between the earth and the sun.  (Image above: Orbital)

Well, hope you find this interesting!  Tomorrow I plan to write about MAVEN, a Mars mission scheduled for 2013.


One comment

  1. The sun should have reached its sunspot minimum last fall, but this spring when the number of sunspots should have been on the rise, they were still largely absent. Some sunspots returned in June and July, but have since disappeared.

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