Staring at the Sun: Top 5 Moments of IRIS


While your mother likely warned you not to stare at the sun, a NASA spacecraft spent the last year doing just that. The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, known as IRIS, has captured over 5 million high-resolution images of solar eruptions and the largest type of flares, called X-class flares. Designed and built by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, IRIS launched on June 27, 2013, and since then opened a window of discovery to the sun’s atmosphere. Here are five of our favorite moments from the mission so far:

1.            Launch – IRIS launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California as part of NASA’s Small Explorer Mission. IRIS, which is an example of Lockheed Martin’s small satellite expertise, didn’t need a heavy-lift launch vehicle. Instead, it used an Orbital Pegasus XL rocket, carried under another Lockheed Martin product, an L-1011 aircraft. Thanks to this piggy back ride, IRIS was deployed over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 39,000 feet and reached its final polar orbit in less than 15 minutes.   

Pegasus Carrying IRIS is Launched

IRIS Launch: The Pegasus rocket is released from the L-1011.                                                                         

2.            First Light – Just 20 days after launch, we observed IRIS’ first images of the sun. Although the telescope’s field of view only covers around 1 percent of the sun, it captures features of the sun as small as 150 miles across. To put in perspective, the red swirls shown in this image are roughly five Earth diameters tall and eight Earth diameters wide.


3.            Solar Eruption – IRIS captured its first gigantic solar eruption, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), on May 9, 2014. The solar material from the eruption exploded at speeds of 1.5 million miles per hour.  On top of that, explosive eruptions such as this CME, cause space weather that can disrupt our modern technology.  

NASA | A First for IRIS: Observing a Gigantic Solar Eruption

A coronal mass ejection burst off the side of the sun on May 9, 2014. Credit: NASA/ Goddard                                                                    

4.            Best Solar Flare Coverage – That’s right. This X-class flare that erupted on March 29, 2014, is one for the record books. The flare was witnessed by four different NASA spacecraft and one ground-based observatory. This is a first to have a record of such an intense flare from the largest number of solar imaging spacecraft. Not to mention, X-class flares are major events that can trigger earth-wide radio blackouts that can interfere with airplane, ship and military communications.

NASA | The Best Observed X-class Flare

On March 29, 2014 the sun released an X-class flare. Credit: NASA/NSO/Goddard Space Flight Center.                                                                         

5.            M-class flare – Although an M-class flare is less intense than an X-class, this solar flare is still worthy of our top five. On Jan. 28, 2014, an active magnetic region of the sun erupted, shooting x-rays and light into space. Capturing this solar flare was difficult – IRIS only sees a small part of the sun and predicting where the sun will flare is a bit of a guessing game, as scientists still do not exactly know what circumstances cause a flare. In fact, since launching we have captured 12 of the 180 M-class flares on the sun’s surface.


June 26, 2014