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IRIS spies M-class solar flare: Sun spits out 'light and x-rays into space'

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Basking in the blinding light of a magnificent solar flare, NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) was able to capture the largest solar flare the solar observatory has seen since it was launched into space last year.

The IRIS solar observatory was launched in June last year with a simple yet daunting mission. The IRIS had to peer into the lower layers of the Sun's atmosphere to give mankind a clearer picture of what lies beneath the Sun's fiery outer shell. In the process of gathering huge amounts of data about the Sun, the observatory was able to glimpse the power and beauty of an M-class solar flare.

A solar flare is a sudden and distinct brightening that can be observed in the Sun's surface. This type of solar phenomenon affects all the layers of the Sun's atmosphere in a brilliant flash of light and radiation. While an M-class flare lies in the upper middle section of the classification scale for solar flares, only X-class and Z-class flares are said to be more powerful.

"On Jan. 28, scientists spotted a magnetically active region on the sun and focused IRIS on it to see how the solar material behaved under intense magnetic forces," said NASA in a post on their site. "At 2:40 p.m. EST, a moderate flare, labeled an M-class flare -- which is the second strongest class flare after X-class - erupted from the area, sending light and x-rays into space. "

NASA's IRIS solar observatory uses an instrument referred to as a spectrograph to gather data about the Sun. This instrument is capable of splitting light into different wavelengths. Each wavelength can then be correlated to specific densities, velocities and temperatures. The data gathered by the IRIS provides scientists with a valuable glimpse into the workings of the solar atmosphere.

The IRIS specifically focuses on the chromosphere, a layer of the Sun that lies between the corona and the photosphere. This layer is also an important part of how the Sun regulates solar material and solar energy that travels from the Sun's surface out into the upper atmosphere of the star.

"IRIS can't look at the entire sun at the same time, so the team must always make decisions about what region might provide useful observations," says NASA.

Despite the fact that the IRIS can only observe specific regions of the Sun, the solar observatory has already recorded numerous solar phenomena that scientists are still studying. While NASA scientists already know the general compositions of solar flares, little is currently known about how these majestic solar outbursts occur in the first place.

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