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Stunning solar eruption

NASA’S SOLAR DYNAMICS OBSERVATORY (SDO) spacecraft captured an enormous plasma ‘filament’ collapsing on the Sun on August 31. A filament is a type of prominence – a loop of plasma (ionised gas) extending up from the Sun’s visible surface – seen in silhouette against the solar disc.

Solar prominences reach up from the photosphere (the visible surface) into the corona, the outer atmosphere of the Sun which contains extremely hot gases. The corona is so hot that it radiates energy beyond the wavelengths of visible light, so it is not normally seen. Prominences are made of cooler ionised gas, so they are visible even through they extend into the corona.

The video above shows a filament loop collapsing, seen partly silhouetted against the solar disc.

The SDO spacecraft, launched in February 2010, studies the Sun continuously from its orbit around the Earth.

More information:

Solar Dynamics Observatory

The Sun

Story by Jonathan Nally. Video and image courtesy NASA/SDO.

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Must-see video of the Sun!

THIS TWO-MINUTE VIDEO shows highlights from the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s second year of studying our nearest star. The NASA spacecraft takes continuous imagery at many wavelengths, providing an unprecedented insight into the life and times of the Sun.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Imagery courtesy NASA / Goddard Space Flight Centre Scientific Visualisation Studio

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VIDEO: Tornadoes on the Sun!

THIS TIME-LAPSE ANIMATION shows enormous tornado-like vortices on the Sun’s limb as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in February this year. The individual images that make up this animation were taken at 36-second intervals.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / Goddard Space Flight Centre Scientific Visualisation Studio.

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Video – The Sun unleashes its fury

TO US DOWN HERE ON THE GROUND, the Sun seems unchanging and ever-reliable on a day-to-day basis. But satellites reveal the reality to be very different. Our nearest star is actually a boiling, roiling cauldron of hot gases, unseen magnetic fields and titanic explosions.

Those explosions are called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, and they shoot enormous clouds of particles far out into the Solar System. Sometimes they hit Earth…but fortunately we’re protected by our planet’s strong magnetic field and thick atmosphere.

The Sun produced about a dozen CMEs between November 22 and 28, 2011. The SOHO spacecraft—which monitors the Sun 24/7—spotted them blasting out in different directions. The following video clip comprises over 1,300 frames, and gives us a sped-up view of those eight eventful days on the Sun:

In order to see the CMEs, SOHO had to block out the glare of the Sun using a coronagraph (black circle). A separate instrument took images of the Sun at the same time (superimposed in the middle) so that we could get the best of both worlds.

The next video was produced from images taken with a different Sun-monitoring spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. It shows a portion of an extremely long filament (over 1,000,000 km) that was stretched across much of the face of the Sun and gracefully erupted into space (November 14, 2011).

Filaments are cooler gas structures that are tethered to the Sun by magnetic forces. About the upper third of this filament rose up and broke away, but the other two-thirds still remains in sight. The images were taken in extreme ultraviolet light. The clip covers about 12 hours of activity.

Finally, here’s an amazing video that gives us a complete time-lapse of the Sun spanning the entire months of September, October and November 2011 as seen through the SWAP ultraviolet instrument aboard yet another Sun-monitoring satellite, the European Space Agency’s Proba-2 (PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy).

Adapted from information issued by NASA / SDO / ESA.

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A year in the Sun

APRIL 21, 2011 MARKED the one-year anniversary of the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) First Light press conference, where NASA revealed the first images taken by the spacecraft.

In the last year, the Sun has gone from its quietest period in years to the activity marking the beginning of solar cycle 24. SDO has captured every moment with a level of detail never-before possible.

The mission has returned unprecedented images of solar flares, eruptions of prominences, and the early stages of coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

In this short video are some of the most beautiful, interesting, and mesmerising events seen by SDO during its first year.

Adapted from information issued by NASA GSFC.

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The Sun as never seen before

FOR THE FIRST TIME in history, a stunning view of the whole Sun is visible to the world.

The unique 360-degree view of the Sun, unveiled today, comes from NASA’s two STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) spacecraft, which were aligned exactly opposite each other on either side of the Sun.

The 360-degree coverage from STEREO is enhanced by NASA’s SDO mission (Solar Dynamics Observatory), which images the Sun in high resolution. As the STEREO probes continue flying to the far side of the Sun, the area of unseen solar territory on the near side will increase, and SDO’s cameras will play a vital role in filling the gap.

Working together, these new views of the Sun will allow scientists to better predict space weather and the violent eruptions from the Sun’s surface. These can damage satellites, disrupt communications and disable power systems on Earth.

“For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory,” says Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

“This is a big moment in solar physics,” says Vourlidas. “STEREO has revealed the Sun as it really is–a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields.”

Now we know what’s coming

Each STEREO probe photographs half of the star and beams the images to Earth. Researchers combine the two views to create a sphere.

These aren’t just regular pictures, however. STEREO’s telescopes are tuned to four wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation selected to trace key aspects of solar activity such as flares, tsunamis and magnetic filaments. Nothing escapes their attention.

“With data like these, we can fly around the Sun to see what’s happening over the horizon—without ever leaving our desks,” says STEREO program scientist Lika Guhathakurta at NASA headquarters. “I expect great advances in theoretical solar physics and space weather forecasting.”

Sun as seen by STEREO and SDO

The solar sphere as seen by STEREO and the Solar Dynamics Observatory on January 31, 2011.

Consider the following: In the past, an active sunspot could emerge on the far side of the Sun completely hidden from Earth. Then, the Sun’s rotation could turn that region toward our planet, spitting flares and clouds of plasma, with little warning.

“Not anymore,” says Bill Murtagh, a senior forecaster at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Centre in Boulder, Colorado. “Farside active regions can no longer take us by surprise. Thanks to STEREO, we know they’re coming.”

Insight into the Sun

“The Sun is a truly complex object which influences many aspects of our lives,” said Professor Richard Harrison, Principal Investigator for the UK-built instruments on STEREO and SDO Co-Investigator.

“In the same way that you would not expect to understand the workings of the brain by studying just a small part of it, a global investigation into the nature of our star as a complete object is essential to understanding how it works.”

“The STEREO mission has already shown us some wonderful sights, solar eruptions arriving at the Earth to comets struggling against the solar wind,” said Dr. Chris Davis, STFC STEREO Project Scientist.

Artist's concept of the STEREO spacecraft

An artist's concept of the twin STEREO spacecraft orbiting the Sun ahead of, and behind, the Earth. On February 6, the probes had separated along Earth's orbit enough so that they were on opposite sides of the Sun.

“I’m very excited about this new stage of the mission and am looking forward to many years of unique observations.”

Dr Davis is also a leading scientist in Solar Stormwatch, a project in which members of the public use images from STEREO to spot explosions on the Sun, track them across space to Earth and provide an early warning to astronauts.

Scientists have already established that the magnetic fields in the Sun’s atmosphere drive solar activity on a global scale. This view of the entire Sun will enable more detailed studies of these processes at work. The 360-degree observations will continue for the lifetime of the missions.

Solar missions

NASA has been building toward this moment since October 2006 when the STEREO probes left Earth, split up, and headed for positions on opposite sides of the Sun.

February 6, 2011, was the date of “opposition”—ie. when STEREO-A and -B were 180 degrees apart, each looking down on different solar hemispheres. NASA’s Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory is also monitoring the Sun 24/7. Working together, the STEREO-SDO fleet should be able to image the entire globe for the next 8 years.

The NASA STEREO mission was launched in October 2006 and is providing a totally new perspective on the Sun. The two identical spacecraft are offset from one another, one flying ahead of the Earth and the other behind. The spacecraft look back at the Sun and the space between the Sun and the Earth, which allows 3D images of the Sun to be produced.

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is the first mission in NASA’s Living with a Star (LWS) program and was launched in February 2010. SDO’s unique orbit allows high resolution images of the Sun to be recorded every three quarters of a second, providing in-depth information about the Sun’s complex magnetic fields and space weather generated by solar flares and violent eruptions (CME’s) from the Sun’s atmosphere which can disable satellites, disrupt communications, cause power grid failures, and expose astronauts to deadly particle doses.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / STFC.

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Amazing eclipse image

Composite image of the July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse.

Three different images, taken by different instruments, have been combined to produce this composite image of the July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse.

This incredible record of July 11’s total solar eclipse is actually three images in one, each taken by different instruments to bring out detail in different parts of the Sun.

The outer, redder part of the image shows the Sun’s outer corona, or outer atmosphere, as seen by the Large Angle Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) on the SOHO spacecraft and shown in red false colour. SOHO has been studying the Sun for years from its vantage point between the Earth and the Sun.

LASCO uses a disc to blot out the bright sun and the inner corona so that the faint outer corona can be monitored and studied.

The inner black-and-white part shows the Sun’s inner corona, and is an image taken from Easter Island by the Williams College Expedition.

Finally, at the very centre is ultraviolet image of the Sun’s surface, taken by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a recently-launched Sun-monitoring spacecraft.

Image credits: Williams College Eclipse Expedition — Jay M. Pasachoff, Muzhou Lu, and Craig Malamut; SOHO’s LASCO image courtesy of NASA/ESA; solar disk image from NASA’s SDO; compositing by Steele Hill, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.

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The Sun in a new light

NASA’s recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, has returned early images that confirm an unprecedented new capability for scientists to better understand our Sun’s dynamic processes. These solar activities affect everything on Earth.

Some of the images from the spacecraft show never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots. Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the Sun’s surface.

The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

“These initial images show a dynamic Sun that I had never seen in more than 40 years of solar research,” said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“SDO will change our understanding of the Sun and its processes, which affect our lives and society. This mission will have a huge impact on science, similar to the impact of the Hubble Space Telescope on modern astrophysics.”

Solar storm watcher

Launched on February 11, 2010, SDO is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the Sun. During its five-year mission, it will examine the Sun’s magnetic field and also provide a better understanding of the role the Sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate.

A full-disc multi-wavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the Sun taken by SDO

A full-disc multi-wavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the Sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colours trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (~60,000 C); blues and greens are hotter (> 1,000,000 C).

Since launch, engineers have been conducting testing and verification of the spacecraft’s components. Now fully operational, SDO will provide images with clarity 10 times better than high-definition television and will return more comprehensive science data faster than any other solar observing spacecraft.

SDO will determine how the Sun’s magnetic field is generated, structured and converted into violent solar events such as turbulent solar wind, solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in our planet’s magnetosphere and upper atmosphere.

SDO will provide critical data that will improve the ability to predict these space weather events.

The danger of space weather

Artist's impression of the Solar Dynamics Observatory in Earth orbit

Artist's impression of the Solar Dynamics Observatory in Earth orbit

Space weather has been recognised as a cause of technological problems since the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. These events produce disturbances in electromagnetic fields on Earth that can induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines and causing widespread blackouts.

Solar storms can interfere with communications between ground controllers, satellites and airplane pilots flying near Earth’s poles. Radio noise from the storms also can disrupt cell phone service.

SDO will send 1.5 terabytes of data back to Earth each day, which is equivalent to a daily download of half a million songs onto an MP3 player. The observatory carries three state-of the-art instruments for conducting solar research.

SDO is the first mission of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, or LWS, and the crown jewel in a fleet of NASA missions that study our Sun and space environment. The goal of LWS is to develop the scientific understanding necessary to address those aspects of the connected Sun-Earth system that directly affect our lives and society.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / SDO / AIA.