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Space

NASA telescope IRIS launched to investigate the sun

A small telescope has been launched on a mission to determine how the sun heats up its atmosphere. The findings could help understand how solar storms disrupt telecommunications on Earth.

The sun is pictured in this NASA handout satellite image taken July 12, 2012, shortly before it released an X-class flare. This image combines two sets of observations of the sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory - light in the 171 Angstrom wavelength, which shows off giant loops of solar material overlying the middle of the sun over the region where the flare originated and a magnetogram, which highlights magnetic fields on the sun. NASA's estimates indicate that the coronal mass ejection associated with this flare is travelling in an Earth direction at over 850 miles per second. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS

Sonnensturm - Eruption von der Sonne

NASA launched the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, IRIS, on a mission to find out how the sun heats its atmosphere to millions of  degrees.

At its core, the sun melds hydrogen atoms into helium. Temperatures cool as energy travels outward through the layers. But then, in the lower atmosphere, known as the chromosphere, temperatures heat up again and peak in the sun's outer atmosphere, the corona reaching almost 3 million degrees Celsius (5.4 million degrees Fahrenheit).

Scientists hope that IRIS will help them understand why that is. They want to learn more about how this mysterious region drives solar wind, which is a stream of charged particles spewing from the sun.

"Every time we look at the sun in more detail, it opens up a new window for us," said Jeffrey Newmark, IRIS program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC.

This could help to better predict space weather that can disrupt communications signals on Earth. Solar activity directly impacts Earth's climate, and solar storms can knock out power grids, disrupt radio signals, and interfere with communications, navigation and other satellites in orbit.

IRIS is designed to capture detailed images of light moving from the sun's surface, known as the photosphere, into the chromosphere, as well as related data about conditions.

IRIS is 1.2 meters long (4 feet) and weighs just over 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It will be watching the sun from a distance of about 640 kilometers (400 miles) above Earth. It rode into orbit on a Pegasus rocket which was in turn dropped from an airplane that took off around sunset from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast.

IRIS is designed to last for two years.

rg/mkg   (Reuters, AP)