Last month, a new telescope was launched into orbit to help scientists solve a long-standing mystery about why the sun's atmosphere, called the corona, is nearly 1,000 times hotter than its surface.
There is no answer yet, but the first images from the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, observatory show the sun is more complicated than scientists imagined.
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IRIS has 10 times the resolving power as previous solar telescopes, so the team, headed by Lockheed Martin's Alan Title, knew they would be getting more detailed images and data. But they didn't expect to see so many dynamic regions especially in what appeared to be relatively quiescent sections of the sun. And they don't yet know what it means.
"We've seen this data only for less than a week and most of that time we've been trying to understand just how we ought to run this instrument," Title, with Lockheed's Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
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"I'm not brash enough to tell you what new and exciting things there are, but there are hints that people are very excited about," he added.
"We're now seeing a lot more structure than we anticipated that we would see. There are some things in these images that we had expected, but there are others that are completely new to us," Title said.
The 4-foot long, 450-pound telescope was launched on June 27 for what is expected to be a two-year mission. Its first images were released on Thursday.
"Obviously, we need more analysis to understand what we're seeing," said IRIS scientist Bart De Pontieu, also with Lockheed Martin.
Image: These two images show a section of the sun as seen by NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, on the left and NASA's SDO on the right. The IRIS image provides scientists with unprecedented detail of the lowest parts of the sun's atmosphere, known as the interface region. Credit: NASA/SDO/IRIS