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NASA Launches Satellite to Study How Sun’s Atmosphere Is Energized

NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft launched Thursday at 7:27 p.m. PDT (10:27 p.m. EDT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The mission to study the solar atmosphere was placed in orbit by an Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL rocket.

“We are thrilled to add IRIS to the suite of NASA missions studying the sun,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “IRIS will help scientists understand the mysterious and energetic interface between the surface and corona of the sun.”

IRIS is a NASA Explorer Mission to observe how solar material moves, gathers energy and heats up as it travels through a little-understood region in the sun’s lower atmosphere. This interface region between the sun’s photosphere and corona powers its dynamic million-degree atmosphere and drives the solar wind. The interface region also is where most of the sun’s ultraviolet emission is generated. These emissions impact the near-Earth space environment and Earth’s climate.

The Pegasus XL carrying IRIS was deployed from an Orbital L-1011 carrier aircraft over the Pacific Ocean at an altitude of 39,000 feet, off the central coast of California about 100 miles northwest of Vandenberg. The rocket placed IRIS into a sun-synchronous polar orbit that will allow it to make almost continuous solar observations during its two-year mission.

The L-1011 took off from Vandenberg at 6:30 p.m. PDT and flew to the drop point over the Pacific Ocean, where the aircraft released the Pegasus XL from beneath its belly. The first stage ignited five seconds later to carry IRIS into space. IRIS successfully separated from the third stage of the Pegasus rocket at 7:40 p.m. At 8:05 p.m., the IRIS team confirmed the spacecraft had successfully deployed its solar arrays, has power and has acquired the sun, indications that all systems are operating as expected.

“Congratulations to the entire team on the successful development and deployment of the IRIS mission,” said IRIS project manager Gary Kushner of the Lockheed Martin Solar and Atmospheric Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif. “Now that IRIS is in orbit, we can begin our 30-day engineering checkout followed by a 30-day science checkout and calibration period.”

IRIS is expected to start science observations upon completion of its 60-day commissioning phase. During this phase the team will check image quality and perform calibrations and other tests to ensure a successful mission.

NASA’s Explorer Program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., provides overall management of the IRIS mission. The principal investigator institution is Lockheed Martin Space Systems Advanced Technology Center. NASA’s Ames Research Center will perform ground commanding and flight operations and receive science data and spacecraft telemetry.

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory designed the IRIS telescope. The Norwegian Space Centre and NASA’s Near Earth Network provide the ground stations using antennas at Svalbard, Norway; Fairbanks, Alaska; McMurdo, Antarctica; and Wallops Island, Va. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for the launch service procurement, including managing the launch and countdown. Orbital Sciences Corporation provided the L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL launch system.

For more information about the IRIS mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/iris

 

 

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Science Gist, Science thrills

Mystery of X-Ray Light from Black Holes Solved

In a new study, astrophysicists from The Johns Hopkins University, NASA and the Rochester Institute of Technology conducted research that bridges the gap between theory and observation by demonstrating that gas spiraling toward a black hole inevitably results in X-ray emissions.

The paper states that as gas spirals toward a black hole through a formation called an accretion disk, it heats up to roughly 10 million degrees Celsius. The temperature in the main body of the disk is roughly 2,000 times hotter than the sun and emits low-energy or “soft” X-rays. However, observations also detect “hard” X-rays which produce up to 100 times higher energy levels.

Julian Krolik, professor of physics and astronomy in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and his fellow scientists used a combination of supercomputer simulations and traditional hand-written calculations to uncover their findings. Supported by 40 years of theoretical progress, the team showed for the first time that high-energy light emission is not only possible, but is an inevitable outcome of gas being drawn into a black hole.

“Black holes are truly exotic, with extraordinarily high temperatures, incredibly rapid motions and gravity exhibiting the full weirdness of general relativity,” Krolik said. “But our calculations show we can understand a lot about them using only standard physics principles.”

The team’s work was recently published in the print edition of Astrophysical Journal. His collaborators on the study include Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Scott Noble, an associate research scientist from the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation at RIT. Schnittman was lead author.

As the quality and quantity of the high-energy light observations improved over the years, evidence mounted showing that photons must be created in a hot, tenuous region called the corona. This corona, boiling violently above the comparatively cool disk, is similar to the corona surrounding the sun, which is responsible for much of the ultra-violet and X-ray luminosity seen in the solar spectrum.

While the team’s study of black holes and high-energy light confirms a widely-held belief, the role of advancing modern technology should not be overlooked. A grant from the National Science Foundation enabled the team to access Ranger, a supercomputing system at the Texas Advanced Computing Center located at the University of Texas in Austin. Ranger worked over the course of about 27 days, over 600 hours, to solve the equations.

Noble developed the computer simulation solving all of the equations governing the complex motion of inflowing gas and its associated magnetic fields near an accreting black hole. The rising temperature, density and speed of the inflowing gas dramatically amplify magnetic fields threading through the disk, which then exert additional influence on the gas.

The result is a turbulent froth orbiting the black hole at speeds approaching the speed of light. The calculations simultaneously tracked the fluid, electrical and magnetic properties of the gas while also taking into account Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“In some ways, we had to wait for technology to catch up with us,” Krolik said. “It’s the numerical simulations going on at this level of quality and resolution that make the results credible.”

The scientists are all familiar with each other as their paths have all crossed with Krolik during graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Schnittman was previously a postdoctoral fellow mentored by Krolik from 2007 to 2010 while Noble was an assistant research scientist and instructor also under Krolik from 2006 to 2009.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation Grants AST-0507455, AST- 0908336 and AST-1028087.

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