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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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Ride a rocket into space

THIS IS A GREAT VIDEO showing what it’s like to fly into space and back aboard a rocket.

On March 23, 2011, two on-board cameras followed a “sounding rocket” on its journey up to 285 kilometres altitude and back down again.

A sounding rocket is small, unmanned rocket that generally is shot straight up through the atmosphere. They’re often used to conduct measurements of conditions in the upper atmosphere and in space just above. They’re also sometimes used to make observations of astronomical objects out in space.

The main panel on the right shows the view looking backwards down the length of the rocket. The smaller panel on the left shows the view looking upward along the rocket. And in the upper left corner is a diagram showing the trajectory of the rocket.

Note also how the rocket spins during ascent. This is deliberate, and is done to keep it on course. It’s a gyroscopic effect.

Another thing to take note of is the sound. The sound of launch can be heard, as well as the rush as the rocket gains altitude. But the noise dies away after about a minute—this is because the air has become too thin for sounds to propagate easily.

Sounding rockets travel very fast and their flights are correspondingly brief.

In this case, the rocket was launched to measure solar energy output and make measurements that were used to calibrate an instrument on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a Sun-monitoring spacecraft.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / GSFC.

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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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Solar storm heading our way

Image of the Sun taken on August 1 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Image of the Sun taken on August 1 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The solar eruption can be seen as the dark area in the top right portion of the Sun's disc.

  • Eruption on the Sun last weekend
  • Swarm of charged particles heading toward Earth
  • Stargazers might see aurorae in the night sky

Sky viewers might get to enjoy some spectacular Northern and Southern Lights, or aurorae, Tuesday or Wednesday nights, depending on where you are in the world.

After a long slumber, the Sun is waking up.

On Sunday, the Sun’s surface erupted and blasted tons of plasma (ionised atoms) into interplanetary space. That plasma is headed our way, and when it arrives, it could create a spectacular light show.

“This eruption is directed right at us, and is expected to get here early in the day [US time] on August 4th,” said astronomer Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA). “It’s the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time.”

The eruption, called a coronal mass ejection, was caught on camera by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a spacecraft that launched in February. SDO provides better-than-HD quality views of the Sun at a variety of wavelengths.

“We got a beautiful view of this eruption,” said Golub. “And there might be more beautiful views to come, if it triggers aurorae.”

Below is a very short, speeded-up movie from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, showing a 3.5-hour sequence of X-ray images of the Sun taken on Sunday, August 1. In the upper right can be seen a dark filament of plasma erupting outward.

When a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth, it interacts with our planet’s magnetic field, potentially creating a geomagnetic storm. Solar particles stream down the field lines toward Earth’s poles. Those particles collide with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere, which then glow like miniature neon signs.

Aurorae normally are visible only at high latitudes. However, during a geomagnetic storm aurorae can light up the sky at lower latitudes. Sky watchers in the northern USA and other Northern Hemisphere countries should look toward the north on the evening of August 3rd/4th for rippling “curtains” of green and red light.

For those at far southern latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the idea is to look to the south.

“It should be emphasised, however, that there is no guarantee of seeing an aurora,” said Jonathan Nally, editor of space news web site SpaceInfo.com.au. “Most of the time, only those who live at latitudes very far north in the Northern Hemisphere, or very far south in the Southern, have any chance of seeing an aurora.”

Solar cycle

The Sun goes through a regular activity cycle about 11 years long on average. The last solar maximum occurred in 2001. Its latest minimum was particularly weak and long lasting. This eruption is one of the first signs that the Sun is waking up and heading toward another maximum.

Solar storms can other affects than just producing pretty sky shows. Their interaction with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere can cause disruption to satellite and long-distance radio communications.

The can also cause disruptions to long pipeline operations and power grids, as these facilities act light giant radio antennae, experiencing power surges that can knock them out of operation.

In 1989, a significant portion of Quebec experienced an hours-long blackout when a major power grid went down in the wake of a solar storm.

This type of things is not expected to occur with Sunday’s storm, as it is a relatively minor one. But in five or six years time, when the Sun will be reaching the maximum of its cycle, it might be a different story.

Sun facts:

  • The Sun is 109 times wider than the Earth
  • Its mass is about 330,000 times that of the Earth
  • The Sun contains just under 99.9% of all the matter in our Solar System (all the planets, asteroids, comets etc, make up the rest)
  • Its surface temperature is 5,500 degrees Celsius
  • But the temperature at the core is 13.6 million degrees Celsius
  • Nuclear reactions in the core convert matter into energy at the rate of over 4 million tonnes per second! Even at that rate, the Sun will live for 10 billion years.
  • The energy released in the core takes tens of thousands years to reach the surface – from there, it travels at the speed of light and only takes just less than 8.5 minutes to reach Earth, 150 million kilometres away. So when we see the Sun, we see it as it was almost 8.5 minutes ago!

Adapted from information issued by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics / NASA.

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz

Below is a very short, speeded-up movie from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows a 3.5-hour sequence of X-ray images of the Sun taken on Sunday, August 1. In the upper right can be seen a dark filament of plasma erupting outward.

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.