NASA solar satellite flashes first Sun images

NASA’s Solar Dynamics satellite offers dynamic high resolution images of the Sun.

NASASDO first shot
NASA today showed off the amazing first pictures of the Sun taken from its 6,800lb Solar Dynamics Observatory flying at an orbit 22,300 miles above Earth.   

The first images show a variety of activity NASA says provide 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. 

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"SDO is revolutionary.  It 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," said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington at a news conference. 

 Among its many duties, SDO will determine how the sun's magnetic field -which SDO scientists said never appears the same way twice -- 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 SDO will provide in-depth information about the Sun's magnetic fields and space weather generated by solar flares and violent eruptions from the Sun's atmosphere known as Coronal Mass Ejections.   

Such powerful ejections are of particular interest because they can carry a billion tons of solar material into space at over a million kilometers per hour. Such events can expose astronauts to deadly particle doses, can disable satellites, cause power grid failures on Earth and disrupt communications. 

Key to the satellite's operation are three high tech telescopes: 

  • The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) looks into the sun and map the plasma flows that generate magnetic fields. HMI will also map the surface of the magnetic field, NASA said. 
  • The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) images the solar atmosphere in multiple wavelengths that cannot be seen from the ground. The idea is that HMI and AIA will link changes on the solar surface to the sun's interior, NASA said.  AIA filters cover 10 different wavelength bands, or colors, selected to reveal key aspects of solar activity. The bulk of SDO's data stream will come from these telescopes, NASA said.  
  • The Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) measures how much radiant energy the sun emits at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths-light that is so completely absorbed by our atmosphere it can only be measured from space, NASA said.  

NASA launched the $808 million spacecraft Feb. 11 to study the Sun and send back what the space agency called a prodigious rush of pictures about sunspots, solar flares and a variety of other never-before-seen solar events. The idea is to get a better idea of how the Sun works and let scientists better forecast the space weather to offer earlier warnings to protect astronauts and satellites, NASA said. 

The Solar Dynamics Observatory will deliver high resolution images of the Sun ten times better than the average High-Definition television to help scientists understand more about the Sun and its disruptive influence on services like communications systems on Earth.  Specifically, NASA says the SDO will beam back 1.5 terabytes of data every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  That's almost 50 times more science data than any other mission in NASA history. It's like downloading 500,000 iTunes a day, NASA stated.

The satellite is placed in what NASA called a unique orbit.  Unlike a geostationary orbit, which would keep the spacecraft above the same area of Earth all the time, the satellite will trace a figure-eight path above Earth, NASA said. 

The idea is to let SDO watch the sun almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for at least five years with only brief interruptions as Earth passes between the satellite and the sun, NASA said. To gather data from SDO's instruments, NASA has set up a pair of dedicated radio antennas near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The orbit will also let high resolution images be recorded every three quarters of a second, producing enough data to fill a single CD every 36 seconds, NASA said. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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