Solar Dynamics Observatory, Rubber Chickens Staring at the Sun…

The satellites and space craft that we launch to observe our world are our eyes and ears in space. Advances in satellites pointed at the Sun have been enormous over the last decade. The latest satellite gathering solar information is NASA’s SDO. Chances are you have seen footage produced by this high-tech observer, all of the solar flare footage used by media channels lately have been thanks to NASA’s SDO satellite. The quality of the footage is incredible, only matched by the sheer amount of information this satellite is sending back to earth, over a terabyte of data a day. The data that this satellite collects will help us understand what drives our most important neighbour, the Sun.


‘Haunting Images from the Sun’, original footage by NASA, mashed by SpaceRIP

Solar Observatory

After SDO’s first year of operation NASA released a compilation of jaw dropping footage of the sun. ‘First Light’ was the original footage released by NASA, this footage was mixed down –edited– into the punchy little two-minute ‘Haunting Images from the Sun’ by SpaceRip, infamous science documentary re-releaser on YouTube. SDO has since produced even more spectacular footage – see video below ‘Sun Sends Out X6.9 Class Solar Flare’, the monster flare occurred August 9, 2011.

Assembled at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland and launched February 11, 2010 from Cape Canaveral SDO was initially placed in low Earth orbit. Eventually it will slowly be maneuvered into it’s final circular geosynchronous orbit –stays facing the sun while the Earth turns– at an altitude of 36,000 km, giving SDO a permanent view of the Sun. The data collected by SDO is part of the ‘Living with a Star’ program which aims to understand the sun and it’s influence on the Earth, the Earth-Sun relationship.

Building on the technology of the previous solar observing satellite SOHO, SDO improves on SOHO‘s instruments and adds new sensors to the study of the sun. Three instrument suites are onboard for observing; Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) , Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) and Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) making SDO the most advanced solar observatory ever. These three sets of sensors are each recording a different perspective of the sun in real-time, HMI listens to the Suns magnetic fields while EVE and AIA watch and photograph the Sun’s outer layers. The sensors collect and send back over a Terabyte of data per day. Once the data is received at the Goddard flight control centre it’s stored and served up to various research facilities. Individually each of the sensors produces spectacular images, together they are stunning.

EVE –Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment– was developed in partnership with the University of Colorado to study the EUV irradiance – the amount of extreme ultra-violet radiation that leaves the sun and hit’s Earth- and why it varies. Most of the heat energy that reaches the Earth from the sun is in the Extreme UV wavelengths, this energy from the sun heats the Earths atmosphere and creates the ionosphere. EVE is a multi-channel instrument -4 banks of instruments- which allows her to record in real-time across the entire E-UV spectrum, required to accurately predict the amount of heat energy being sent to the Earth.

Built with Stanford Universities partnership to study the internal sources of the Sun’s variability HMI –Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager– studies the internal forces of the Sun. Using helioseismology -listening to sun quakes- HMI listens to the Sun as it convulses with energy and shock waves. A peek inside the sun, watching it’s internal magnetic fields twist and turn in an attempt to establish a link between what’s happening internally and corona / sun spots. By understanding the internal forces of the Sun hopefully we can better predict the Suns activity.

“The Helioseismic Magnetic Imager (HMI) is performing splendidly,” reports HMI principal investigator Phil Scherrer of Stanford University. “We’re getting very high-quality, high signal-to-noise data.”

AIA –Atmospheric Imaging Assembly– captures amazing photo’s of the Suns outer corona layer, of flares bursting through the corona releasing their fiery storm into space. Designed to study the sun in both quiet -quiescent phases- and the high activity flare cycles the AIA is the highest resolution coronal activity camera ever pointed at the Sun. Designed specifically to observe energy moving into the corona then bursting out creating solar flares and sending the solar winds heading for Earth the AIA is responsible for the close up solar flare clips seen on TV.

Rubber Chickens?

No discussion of SDO is complete without mentioning Camilla Corona the chicken. While some may say Camilla resembles a rubber chicken, she is not to be taken lightly. Camilla is part of NASA’s public relations and reach out program, working with social media and educational institutions. She is a minor celebrity at NASA, having photo’s with every astronaut in recent history. Camilla and two other NASA mascots -Fuzz and Skye- have been on their own space mission, BTS-1. The mission launched successfully, even though the launch balloon only took them to 70,000 feet they were still able to communicate with the ISS and do some scientific experiments, then re-entry time. They were lost for a short while after re-entry, touching down in a crocodile infested nature reserve they quickly found their way out, and proceeded to the nearest casino. Check out Camilla’s blog, it’s hilarious and hell she may be the only one left at NASA if the budget cuts continue.

Stearing at the Sun has never been so much fun nor has it ever looked so good. Our new eye’s in the sky -SDO- will be producing this kind of footage for the next 10 years so we can look forward to much more of this in the future. Like a child with a new toy scientist are still learning to fully use SDO’s capabilities, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Along the way we may even learn a thing or two about our father, the Sun.

Further information NASA, NASA SDO, Camilla’s Blog

Related Articles:

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  • Solar Flares, a Slap in the Face From Space. READ MORE
  • Mother Earth, The Sun is Not Your Father. READ MORE
  • Star-Cruisers Circle our Sun. READ MORE

Buddha’s Brother out…
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Original NASA footage ‘First Light’

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NASA. Sun Sends Out X6.9 Class Solar Flare