NASA launched its latest solar observatory, the IRIS spacecraft, on Thursday (June 27), whose mission is to answer a fundamental question of how the sun creates such intense energy.

The IRIS, a 7-foot-long, 403-pound spacecraft, is mounted to the nose of the winged Pegasus rocket for the climb into low-Earth orbit. It flew on its own after about 13 minutes from release.

The spacecraft will point a telescope at the interface region of the sun that lies between the surface and the million degree outer atmosphere called the corona. It will improve scientists' understanding of how energy moves from the sun's surface to the glowing corona, heating up from 6,000 degrees to millions of degrees.

The IRIS mission, short for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, calls for the 7-foot-long spacecraft to point its ultraviolet telescope at the sun to discern features as small as 150 miles across. It will look at about 1 percent of the sun's surface.

IRIS is a NASA Small Explorer that will complement the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and Hinode missions to explore how the solar atmosphere works and impacts Earth. SDO and Hinode will monitor the solar surface and outer atmosphere, with IRIS watching the region in between.

The mission will hopefully improve understanding of the interface region where most of the sun's ultraviolet emission is generated that impacts the near-Earth space environment as well as Earth's climate. Solar activity such as coronal mass ejections and solar flares are also of great interest to spacecraft designers who have to figure out ways to protect instruments and electronics from them.

Presented by Adam Justice