NASA telescope opens eye to spy on the sun

Scientists will use IRIS to watch for solar weather that can affect communication systems and electronics

The telescope doors are open on a NASA spacecraft that could give scientists clues to space weather that affects communication systems, electronics and power networks.

Less than a month after launching the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), NASA opened its telescope door on Wednesday. Simply uncovering the spacecraft's telescope lens was a significant milestone for the project, according to NASA.

IRIS is a solar telescope designed to give scientists information about how material gathers, moves and heats up in the Sun's lower atmosphere.

Better understanding this part of the sun's atmosphere, which sits below the corona, could help scientists understand and model phenomena like the ejection of solar material -- something that, if it's large enough, can damage electronic circuits, power distribution networks and communications systems on Earth.

IRIS was launched on June 27 from a Pegasus rocket that was dropped from the belly of an L-1011 TriStar aircraft flying above the Pacific Ocean, about 90 miles off the central coast of California.

The solar telescope is in the midst of a 60-day test period that began at launch. The first 30 days, which ends July 27, consists of spacecraft system checks, according to the space agency. The team will use the next 30 days for initial solar observations to fine tune the telescope's instruments.

If the tests go well, NASA plans to move IRIS into science mode by Aug. 26.

IRIS is set to focus on two parts of the lower solar atmosphere that exhibit an unusual effect: temperatures in the region are believed to be around 6,000 Kelvin near the Sun's surface and heat up to around a million Kelvin at the top of the region.

That's different than our conventional experience with heat sources, where temperatures rise as the source is approached.

"There's not been a push to look at this region because the atomic physics in this region is very, very, very complicated," Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement last month.

In the last decade, hopes have risen that computer models can accurately handle the complex information expected to come in about the Sun's lower atmosphere.

IRIS
In its first major milestone since launch, IRIS telescope door, the circular white object on the far left of this image, is open. (Image: NASA Goddard)

This article, NASA telescope opens eye to spy on the sun, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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