The IRIS solar observatory, launched last month, has sent back new pictures that show a key part of the sun's atmosphere in unprecedented detail. Some of the data are surprising.
Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA/AP
A new solar observatory, launched less than a month ago, is revealing remarkably fine details about a little-explored region of the sun's atmosphere, where temperatures leap from tens of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit at the sun's surface to to millions of degrees in its extended atmosphere.
Dubbed the interface region by the observatory's science team, this first 2,000 to 3,000 miles of the sun's atmosphere is thought to play a key role in a range of processes, including those that power solar flares and even more potent coronal-mass ejections. These events can endanger satellites, disrupt radio communication and GPS navigation, as well as disrupt the power grid on Earth.
For all their excitement at seeing the first images from this new orbiting observatory, mission scientists aren't quite ready yet to hazard informed guesses about what the new observations mean.
"I'm not brash enough to tell you what new and exciting things there are, but there are enough hints that people are very excited," said Alan Title, a solar physicist with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and the lead scientist for NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), during a briefing Thursday.