NASA's Iris satellite camera captures hottest part of sun

The fine detail in images of prominences in the sun's atmosphere from NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrometer – such as the red swirls shown here – are challenging the way scientists understand such events.

NASA's newest satellite recently captured images of the hottest section of the sun, the area between its surface and the corona, or outer layers. The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) video shows a bubbling, fiery cauldron.


 Temperatures there spike beyond 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit and explosions of plasma travel at hundreds of kilometers an hour – fast enough to cover the distance between New York and Los Angeles in mere seconds, according to researcher Scott McIntosh of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

McIntosh's team presented the study at the American Geophysics Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. on Dec. 9.

"The quality of images and spectra we are receiving from IRIS is amazing," said Alan Title, IRIS principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, according to a NASA press release. "And we're getting this kind of quality from a smaller, less expensive mission, which took only 44 months to build."

Launched on June 27, IRIS is expected to help researchers better understand and predict space weather.

"We are seeing rich and unprecedented images of violent events in which gases are accelerated to very high velocities while being rapidly heated to hundreds of thousands of degrees," said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin. "These types of observations present significant challenges to current theoretical models."

While space weather produces natural wonders such as the Northern Lights, it is also able to disrupt power supplies, transportation systems and communication networks on Earth.

"When a storm erupts from the Sun, what is it going to travel into? Is the material going to get to Earth fast or is it going to get there slow?” McIntosh said, according to the BBC. "The only way you can find this out is by understanding the detailed physics of the Sun's atmosphere."