JANUARY 25, 2013
In the midst of all the grim news about manic government spending and higher taxes comes a comforting story that’s sure to provoke lots of warm and fuzzy feelings among Americans; the nation’s space agency spent $5 million on a special telescope that took pictures of the sun for around five minutes.
As the price tag clearly indicates, this isn’t just any telescope. It’s a very sophisticated device that’s able to do what no other has managed; take high resolution images of the sun’s atmosphere. This is critical because it unravels a decades-old mystery surrounding the huge temperature discrepancy between the sun’s most outer layer and surface.
This is important stuff, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), because scientists have long wondered why the sun’s outer layer is up to 800 times hotter than its surface. Apparently, it was the $5 million question in scientific circles. So the space agency built a High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) and launched it into space for a few minutes to take snapshots.
It captured 165 images of an active region in the sun’s corona and demonstrated the evolution of the magnetic field by showing the repeated release of energy through sun activity at temperatures of 2 to 4 million degrees. Scientists then observed, for the first time ever, small bands of magnetism near the surface twist turn and essentially braid together before snapping apart releasing heat and energy flares that heat up the atmosphere.
“Scientists have tried for decades to understand how the sun’s dynamic atmosphere is heated to millions of degrees,” said Hi-C principal investigator Jonathan Cirtain, a NASA heliophysicist “Because of the level of solar activity, we were able to clearly focus on an active sunspot, and obtain some remarkable images. Seeing this for the first time is a major advance in understanding how our sun continuously generates the vast amount of energy needed to heat its atmosphere.”
As impressive as this may seem to the science community, the big question for many taxpayers might be; was it worth $5 million? NASA officials assert that it’s a “low-cost means to conduct space science and studies of earth’s upper atmosphere.” They further point out that, compared to a typical space mission (that can cost up to $1.6 billion), the $5 million price tag on this project is a “relative bargain.” Remember that next time Uncle Sam digs into your paycheck.
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