July 26, 2013, 8:07 AM — NASA's newest telescope is giving scientists their clearest pictures yet of the sun's atmosphere, and in doing so could help mitigate the potentially devastating effects an extreme solar storm could have on our power and communications networks on Earth.
Launched a month ago, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS, on Thursday sent some of its first images of the sun back to Earth. The pictures should help scientists form a better understanding of the sun's weather, which is important because its influence on Earth goes well beyond providing sunlight and warmth.
An ever-changing pattern of instability on the sun's surface causes particles to be thrown outward, sometimes directly toward the Earth. These eruptions can take the form of solar flares, which cause the awe-inspiring northern lights, but can also cause the Earth's atmosphere to expand and increase the amount of drag on low-Earth-orbit satellites, such as those used for spying and GPS navigation, shortening their lifespan.
The most violent eruptions can have a much larger impact, including potentially knocking power grids offline and leaving millions without electricity. Such an eruption occurred in 1859, frying parts of the international telegraph system, which at the time was the main medium for long-distance communications.
If such an event occurred today, with electricity and Internet communications such a fundamental part of daily life, it's hard to even fully imagine the potential impact. A recent report from Lloyds of London suggested the damage from a violent eruption could leave 20 million people without power for as long as two years.
All solar weather travels through the lower solar atmosphere, and IRIS contains a powerful spectrograph that will focus on this region of the sun. Thus, scientists hope IRIS will give them a better understanding of these solar events and perhaps help them find a way to predict them.
"These beautiful images from IRIS are going to help us understand how the sun's lower atmosphere might power a host of events around the sun," Adrian Daw, mission scientist for IRIS at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "Any time you look at something in more detail than has ever been seen before, it opens up new doors to understanding. There's always that potential element of surprise."
The Earth is prone to the impact of solar weather because the particles hitting Earth from the sun are magnetized.