Nasa's 'iris' Project Looks To Reveal Sun's Secrets (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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NASA's 'IRIS' Project Looks to Reveal Sun's Secrets

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and with the first day of summer upon this week, we are pleased to present our annual Feeling the Heat show. Earlier in the hour we visited Frager's Hardware, the iconic Capitol Hill store that was devastated by fire earlier this month. And in just a bit we'll meet an artist at the University of Maryland who is constantly feeling the heat at his day job, quite literally actually. But first, next week brings an event that could forever change our understanding of something so hot its temperatures can be 12,000 times more blistering than the hottest lava on Earth.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:46
We're talking about the sun.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:50
And I recently traveled to Greenbelt, Md., where I met a fellow who's pretty well versed when it comes to this sizzling celestial body. His name is Alex Young.

MR. ALEX YOUNG

00:01:01
And I'm a heliophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

SHEIR

00:01:06
Heliophysics, what is that exactly?

YOUNG

00:01:09
Well, Helios comes from Greek for the sun, which is the center of our solar system. And it's driving everything that's happening. And the study of all those processes that are happening throughout the solar system is heliophysics.

SHEIR

00:01:23
Now, as Young will tell you, at the sun's core temperatures are approximately 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.

SHEIR

00:01:30
At its surface, they're far cooler, more like 10,000 degrees. But as you move outward from the surface, toward what's known as the sun's corona…

YOUNG

00:01:39
It's what you see during a total solar eclipse. There's a sort of wispy structure out.

SHEIR

00:01:43
…temperatures shoot up again, to a sweltering 3.6 million degrees.

YOUNG

00:01:48
On the Earth, you go higher and higher, the atmosphere gets thinner and colder.

YOUNG

00:01:53
But one of the weirdest things about the sun's atmosphere, if you go from the visible surface and move upwards, all of a sudden the temperature just skyrockets.

SHEIR

00:02:05
So that raises two big questions, says Young. One…

YOUNG

00:02:08
Why is it hotter?

SHEIR

00:02:09
And two…

YOUNG

00:02:10
How is that hotter?

SHEIR

00:02:12
To find out, NASA is gearing up for a brand new mission it's calling IRIS.

YOUNG

00:02:16
It stands for the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph.

SHEIR

00:02:22
The 403-pound satellite will launch on June 26, aboard a Pegasus X-L rocket.

YOUNG

00:02:27
Kind of like a glorified cruise missile. You strap it on the bottom of a big plane.

YOUNG

00:02:32
You take the plane up in the air, and you drop it off and it launches from there.

SHEIR

00:02:38
Once IRIS starts orbiting the Earth, it'll capture images of a mysterious region between the sun's surface and corona, an area known as the interface region.

YOUNG

00:02:47
It's sort of the interface between the visible surface that we see and this crazy hot corona.

SHEIR

00:02:56
So NASA does have other spacecraft studying the sun, like the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

YOUNG

00:03:02
Which is showing us the whole sun.

SHEIR

00:03:03
But what sets IRIS apart is its ability to zoom in and capture high-resolution images of specific parts of the sun, like the interface region.

SHEIR

00:03:12
Why is it important to study this region? What does it have to do with us?

YOUNG

00:03:16
This does address and deal with very important things. Because the sun produces all of these really dynamic, explosive phenomena.

SHEIR

00:03:24
Also known as space weather.

SHEIR

00:03:26
Like solar flares…

YOUNG

00:03:27
Basically big flashes of light.

SHEIR

00:03:29
…and sunspots.

YOUNG

00:03:30
And that's where magnetic fields are coming up through the surface. And they're kind of like rubber bands, and they get all twisted and eventually they pop and they have to release energy.

SHEIR

00:03:40
Then you have these sudden eruptions known as coronal mass ejections.

YOUNG

00:03:44
And that's where big bubbles of stuff come off the sun and magnetic field.

YOUNG

00:03:50
And those big blobs that come away from the sun are traveling at about a million miles an hour, maybe more. And sometimes they're directed at the Earth. When those coronal mass ejections slam into our magnetic field, our magnetosphere, it creates these electrical disturbances. And those electrical disturbances can cause all kinds of havoc on our technology.

SHEIR

00:04:10
All kinds of havoc, like satellite interference, power-grid failures and disrupted GPS services, which is why Young says when it comes to space weather…

YOUNG

00:04:19
We have to understand why it happens.

SHEIR

00:04:22
What its effects will be.

YOUNG

00:04:23
And ultimately, can we predict it? And this particular area, the interface region, plays a key role in how this energy gets through the solar atmosphere and drives space weather.

SHEIR

00:04:39
So that, says Alex Young, is why IRIS is so critical. Because while it's often said there's nothing new under the sun, with this mission, NASA is hoping to prove that actually, there's plenty new within it. To learn more about the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph mission, including how you can monitor its data as the satellite orbits the Earth, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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