MIAMI — Solar storms and eruptions on the surface of the sun are showing up in unprecedented detail in images and video from NASA’s newest solar observatory.
The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is providing the most detailed observations ever collected about the sun, enabling scientists to better understand how seemingly small solar events can have large-scale effects on the Earth and its inhabitants, such as knocking out power grids and GPS satellites.
“The sun is a major part of our everyday lives,” said Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The biggest thing about SDO is that it’s enabling the prediction of space weather.”
Early findings from SDO, presented recently at the 216th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Miami, are already contributing to better understanding of solar activity and the science of the sun’s inner workings, project scientists said.
“Even small events restructure large regions of the solar surface,” said Alan Title, principal investigator for SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif. “It’s been possible to recognize the size of these regions because of the combination of spatial, temporal and area coverage provided by AIA.”
Shortly after AIA opened its doors, scientists observed a large eruptive prominence on the sun’s edge, which was followed by a filament eruption a third of the way across the sun’s disk.
The instrument also has observed a number of very small flares that have generated magnetic instabilities and waves with clearly observed effects over a substantial fraction of the solar surface. AIA is capturing full-disk images in eight different temperature bands that span 5,500 to 20 million degrees Celsius. These capabilities allow scientists to observe entire events that are very difficult to discern by examining a single temperature band, at a slower rate, or over a more limited field of view.
The high-resolution, multi-temperature images enable scientists to zoom in and closely examine the physics of the corona.
“Although we knew that these small-scale emergencies affected regions locally — at maybe five or 10 times their diameter — we had not known that there was the potential for much larger-scale restructuring to occur,” Title said.
By observing these cascading effects in the corona, scientists will be able to better understand the cause and effect of solar activity.
“Until we understand how these connections work and how fast they are, we won’t really understand what really kicks off solar flares and coronal mass ejections,” Title explained. “For the first time, we’ll be able to see these connections and understand the physics that is involved with this restructuring and the energy that is involved.”
Solar storms produce disturbances in electromagnetic fields that can have disruptive effects on Earth. These storms have the potential to cause problems with satellite navigation systems, radio communications and energy grids.
Scientists will use data from the SDO probe to help understand changes in the sun’s magnetic field and better predict solar flares.
“We’re receiving an enormous amount of information,” Pesnell said. “We can look all the way through the sun and tell you what’s going on on the other side. SDO gives us the ability to model the corona, and even watch the magnetic field coming from the inside, so we can see what’s coming to Earth.”
SDO was launched Feb. 11, and the spacecraft’s May 14 commissioning confirmed that all three of its instruments had successfully passed an on-orbit checkout. This milestone marked the beginning of SDO’s operating mission, meaning the instruments are now producing science data streams.
The solar observatory contains three instruments, including AIA, that take photographs of the sun every 10 seconds in eight wavelengths of light. The probe is able to record images with 10 times better resolution than a high-definition television.
AIA takes approximately 70,000 images a day, Pesnell said, and in total, the observatory beams down 1.5 terabytes of data on a daily basis.
“We’re already at 5 million images and counting,” Pesnell said. “With data and images pouring in from SDO, solar scientists are poised to make discoveries that will rewrite the books on how changes in solar activity have a direct effect on Earth. The observatory is working great, and it’s just going to get better.”