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NASA's IRIS spots giant solar flare

NASA announced on Friday that the space agency's Interface Region Imagining Spectrograph (IRIS) spacecraft had observed its largest solar flare since it had launched in June of 2013. The enormous burst of x-rays and light occurred on Jan. 28, 2014.

IRIS spacecraft in cleanroom prior to its launch in 2013.

IRIS observes a portion of the sun's atmosphere called the chromosphere. The Chromosphere is just above the sun's surface and regulates the flow of energy from the surface out into space.IRIS cannot observe the same time so the scientific team must decide which region can provide useful observations. On Jan. 28, the team spotted a magnetically active region of the sun and focused IRIS on IT. At 2:40 pm EST, an M-class flare, the second-most powerful type of solar flare, erupted from the area, shooting x-rays and light out into space.

The IRIS spacecraft carries an ultraviolet telescope which can focus on features on the sun as small as 150 miles. The telescope feeds an imaging spectrograph which can separate the light it sees into into individual wavelengths which are related to materials at different temperatures, densities and velocities. The data gathered during the flare can help determine how different temperatures of material flow, giving the researchers a better understanding of how flares work.

The IRIS mission is managed by the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, Calif. IRIS's day-to-day operations are controlled by NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. which also provides the ground data system. The Pleiades supercomputer at NASA Ames is used to carry out computer simulations of the sun's behavior based on data gather by IRIS and other solar observing spacecraft.