On March 29, 2014 the sun released an X-class flare, and four NASA spacecraft were there to see it.
NASA on Wednesday released gorgeous new photos of an X-class solar flare that erupted from the right side of the sun in late March. NASA often catches glimpses of solar flares, but this one was unique because four different NASA spacecraft, along with one ground-based observatory, were all watching a specific spot on the sun at that specific time. Three out of the four instruments, in fact, had been programmed a day in advance to focus on the very spot where the flare erupted from, according to NASA.
"To have a record of such an intense flare from so many observatories is unprecedented," NASA said.
Depending on their strength and how they interact with the Earth's magnetic field, X-class solar flares have the potential to interfere with aircraft, ship and military communications on Earth. In January, NASA had to scrub a rocket launch due to a massive solar flare. In addition to NASA's monitoring, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also operates a Space Weather Center in Boulder, Colorado to watch for potentially disruptive solar events.
The telescopes involved in gathering these images were NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS; NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO; NASA's Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, or RHESSI; the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hinode; and the National Solar Observatory's Dunn Solar Telescope. This was the first X-class flare caught by IRIS, which launched in June 2013 to focus on particular layers of the sun, about which scientists have many unanswered questions.
According to NASA, the agency's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory and the joint European Space Agency and NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory "both watched the great cloud of solar material that erupted off the sun with the flare, an event called a coronal mass ejection." NOAA's GOES satellite tracked X-rays from the flare, and other spacecraft measured the effects of the flare as it came toward Earth.
This event was particularly exciting for the IRIS team, as this was the first X-class flare it ever observed since launching in 2013. IRIS's job is to zoom in on layers of the sun, called the chromosphere and transition region, through which all the energy and heat of a flare must travel as it forms. This region—overall called the interface region—has typically been very hard to untangle. But on March 29, IRIS provided scientists with the first detailed view of what happens in this region during a flare.
The timing of all the different observation platforms focused on that spot on the sun at once wasn't just dumb luck, according to NASA:
In this case, the Dunn Solar Telescope helped coordinate the space-based observatories. Lucia Kleint is the principal investigator of a NASA-funded grant at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute grant to coordinate ground-based and space-based flare observations. While she and her team were hunting for flares during ten observing days scheduled at Sacramento Peak, they worked with the Hinode and IRIS teams a day in advance to coordinate viewing of the same active region at the same time. Active regions are often the source of solar eruptions, and this one was showing intense magnetic fields that moved in opposite directions in close proximity – a possible harbinger of a flare. However, researchers do not yet know exactly what conditions will lead to a flare so this was a best guess, not a guarantee.But the guess paid off. In the space of just a few minutes, the most comprehensive flare data set of all time had been collected. Now scientists are hard at work teasing out a more detailed picture of how a flare starts and peaks – an effort that will help unravel the origins of these little-understood explosions on the sun.