Looking directly at the Sun is not advised, but it's exactly what NASA's recently-launched unmanned IRIS spacecraft is designed to do. In fact, the spacecraft, which was launched into orbit 328 miles above the Earth in late June, has already returned its first batch of images of the Sun's mysterious lower atmosphere, and they don't disappoint. Using its single telescope and spectrograph (a light-separating instrument), IRIS has revealed a series of strange, previously unseen features on our parent star, what NASA describes as "a multitude of thin, fibril-like structures." The agency, along with the spacecraft's builders at Lockheed Martin, say they aren't sure yet what these are, exactly. "There is much work ahead to understand what we're seeing, but the quality of the data will enable us to do that," said Alan Title, the principal investigator for the spacecraft at Lockheed Martin.
"There is much work ahead to understand what we're seeing."
Aside from these fibrils, IRIS's first batch of imagery shows that in between loops of plasma, gas and other matter arcing around in the lower solar atmosphere, there are actually significant changes in temperature and material density. Some areas also appear to rapidly brighten and darken, which scientists say could help them to understand how the enormous energy from the Sun moves throughout the lower atmosphere. Check out the following IRIS video animation of a small slice of the Sun in action (less than 1 percent). The spacecraft captures one new image of the Sun every 5 to 10 seconds.
Part of the goal of the IRIS mission is to provide scientists with more information on how exactly this part of the sun — a 3,000-to-6,000-mile-thick coating around the star known as the interface, located just above the surface — heats the Sun's upper layers and fuels solar wind, which can cause all sorts of problems for us back here on Earth when it is especially strong. IRIS is able to look at smaller regions of the Sun than any previous spacecraft, just 150 miles across, allowing it to pick up finer details than ever before. The mission was designed to be on the cheaper end of NASA's spacefaring activities (less than $120 million), and so far, it looks as though NASA is already getting the return-on-investment.