This April, NASA's IRIS (Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph) spacecraft will set out on a two-year mission to answer how the sun's corona gets so hot.
Using high-resolution images, spectral data, and supercomputing power, IRIS will hone in on the forces at work near the surface of the sun - with the goal of explaining how matter, light, and energy move from the sun's 6,000 K (10,240 F / 5,727 C) surface to its million K (1.8 million F / 999,700 C) outer atmosphere, the corona.
The lower levels of the sun's atmosphere have previously proved difficulty to study, but IRIS's ultraviolet telescope and imaging spectrograph will be able to capture images within seconds. Combined with the 3-D modeling capabilities of supercomputers such as NASA's Pleiades (and recent advances in analyzing big data), these images will provide key information about regional activity.
Movement in the region makes the sun's atmosphere much hotter than its surface, powering solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These, in turn, affect the Earth's upper atmosphere, disrupting radio transmissions and causing damage to satellites and power grids - potentially resulting in extensive and lengthy outages.
Read more in Smithsonian Science:
- Sarah Engel