A new space camera - designed, built and controlled by Bay Area scientists - is scheduled to be launched on Thursday night with this mission: to capture the best images ever of the sun's roiling, flaring nuclear fire.

Images of the inferno will be captured by the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), sent into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was designed and built by Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto and will be controlled by NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

It will observe how solar material moves, gathers energy and heats up as it travels through a little-understood region in the sun's atmosphere.

"Most people think of the sun as a constant source of heat and light," said NASA Ames Director Pete Worden.

"But we see it differently. It is a place of a tremendous amount of activity where something very strange and mysterious happens."

Here's the big conundrum: How does the energy released from deep inside the sun power its blistering million-degree outer atmosphere?

Since the 1940s, scientists have wondered why the sun's energy doesn't cool down as it radiates from its core, but suddenly heats up -- reaching a million degrees -- in its upper atmosphere.

This startling process will be captured by cameras aboard IRIS, then studied using advanced computational techniques, said Bart DePontieu, science lead of IRIS at Lockheed Martin.

Its digital images will be transmitted as data for analysis by supercomputers equal in power to 30 people using laptops for 10,000 years.

The $170 million IRIS project aims to understand the sun's complicated physics that can profoundly influence our daily lives, from interfering with our cellphones to disabling our electrical grid.

"When a power system goes out, and a transformer fails, someone gets stuck in an elevator," Worden said. "We live in a very, very complex society and the sun has a very important role to play in it.

"The sun is the engine that runs this system. This project is really, ultimately, about us -- and how that object we see in the sky every day affects us."

IRIS won't risk a destructive sunburn, orbiting a safe 400 miles above us, far from the atmosphere that interferes with picture-taking.

It is the first mission designed to use an ultraviolet telescope to obtain high-resolution images every few seconds, observing solar areas as small as 150 miles across. Analysis will start later this summer.

Previous missions sent to study the sun's surface offered too little detail.

"We are trying understand several mysteries of how the sun works," DePontieu said.

One of its additional missions is to learn more about solar jets, winds and storms. Giant jets of superhot gases erupt from the sun's surface at 75 miles per second, like enormous fountains with bases the size of Los Angeles.

"How do solar winds accelerate? How do eruptions occur?" he asked. "That's what we hope to learn."

The satellite will be controlled by a team led by NASA Ames' Robert Carvalho. It will command IRIS like a space-faring drone, telling it where to point, when to turn cameras on and off and when to send data back to the earth or to store it.

"We're going to make sure it keeps doing what it needs to do," he said, "for the next several years."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.

Online extra
Thursday's launch of the rocket carrying the IRIS solar research vehicle into space will be webcast live at 7:27 p.m. at www.nasa.gov/ntv.
Watch NASA videos explaining the IRIS space mission to investigate the Sun's mysteries at www.mercurynews.com/science.