This image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a larger area around the two sunspots that were photographed by IRIS.
This image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows a larger area around the two sunspots that were photographed by IRIS.
NASA

A space-based solar telescope built by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and launched at the end of June has sent back its first close-ups of a layer of the sun’s atmosphere—images that look as much like artwork as scientific images.

The IRIS mission, short for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, will ultimately provide data that may help untangle how the sun’s corona is heated. The corona, the halo of heat and light that is visible during a solar eclipse, has been the source of enduring mystery in science, in part because it is hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface.

The NASA telescope is equipped with ultraviolet filters and has the ability to take rapid and detailed images that will allow scientists to track the changes in a part of the sun’s atmosphere called the chromosphere in vivid detail.

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There are practical reasons to study our sun; more detailed understanding could help scientists understand violent events that erupt across its fiery surface, knocking out satellites and wreaking havoc on power grids on Earth. But the images are also a vivid reminder that even as scientists search for habitable worlds circling other stars, there is plenty of mystery and beauty lurking in our own solar system.