NASA shows 1st images from solar observatory

NASA scientists are marvelling at the first high-resolution images of the sun from a new satellite designed to predict disruptive solar storms.
The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this eruption from the sun on March 30. ((NASA))

NASA scientists are marvelling at the first high-resolution images of the sun from a new satellite designed to predict disruptive solar storms.

Researchers unveiled the first images and short movie clips of the sun from the Solar Dynamics Observatory on Wednesday, and say they're already learning new things.

Dean Pesnell, SDO's project scientist, said the satellite is "working beautifully," and has already disproved at least one theory, but he didn't elaborate.

"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 NASA's heliophysics division.

"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," Fisher said in a statement.

The short movie of an erupting solar prominence was made from some of the first images captured by the SDO's main telescope array, the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly.

This false-colour image of the sun taken in the extreme ultraviolet range shows different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 C); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million C). ((NASA))

"We've seen solar prominences before — but never quite like this," said Alan Title of Lockheed Martin, principal investigator for the AIA. "Some of my colleagues say they've learned new things about prominences just by watching this one movie."

The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched Feb. 11 from Cape Canaveral and spent two months getting into a synchronous orbit over its ground station in New Mexico.

The satellite beams back pictures of the sun at an unprecedented resolution of 4,096 by 4,096 pixels, 10 times better resolution than HDTV. The SDO takes one picture at eight different wavelengths every 10 seconds.

Other instruments on the satellite will measure the sun's brightness in the extreme ultraviolet light spectrum, map the sun's magnetic fields and observe sound waves passing over its surface to probe its inner workings. NASA calls it the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun.

Its five-year mission is to investigate the sun's magnetic field, and how it generates solar wind, solar flares and other phenomena, known as space weather.

The $856-million US instrument is the first mission of NASA's Living With a Star program, which has a goal of studying how the behaviour of the sun affects life on Earth.

Space weather can affect communications, power grids, GPS satellites and other technological systems on Earth. A geomagnetic storm caused by an ejection of plasma from the sun in March 1989 caused a collapse in the Hydro-Québec power grid, leading to a provincewide blackout that left six million people without power for more than nine hours.

The 290-kilogram satellite has no on-board storage and beams down 1.5 terabytes of data — enough to fill about 60 Blu-ray discs — every day, more than any other NASA mission. Two 18-metre dishes at the New Mexico base receive the transmissions.

With its solar panels extended, the SDO satellite is more than six metres wide and 4.5 metres long.

The Helioseismic Magnetic Imager (HMI) instrument on SDO can map the solar interior and magnetic fields on the sun's surface. HMI observed this sunspot on March 29. The sunspot's main core (white) is about the size of Earth. The white and black areas indicate opposite magnetic polarities. ((NASA/SDO/HMI))

With files from The Associated Press