Violent Sun Imaged by NASA Solar Observatory


Violent activity on the Sun is accelerating as 2012 moves into its second month. All the activity has been seen building since late 2011. It heralds the start of a new Solar Maximum phase; the imagery was obtained by the NASA/Goddard Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

The Sun goes through a peak in solar activity about every 12 years. The 6,800 lb. SDO spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in February of 2010 specifically to watch the buildup, peak and eventual tail off of the violent phase.

Spectacular solar loops imaged in ultraviolet by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory have just rotated in view of Earth after the brilliant active region at the base of the loops sprang to life when this region was still on the solar backside. These loop structures are made of superheated plasma, soaring so high above the Sun that several Earth’s could be stacked under each loop. Photo Credit: NASA

The sun erupted on January 22, with an M8.7 class flare, generating a enormous coronal mass ejection (CME), toward Earth.  The CME is a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a “solar energetic particle event”. The Jan. 22 event caused the strongest solar radiation storm since September 2005 according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. 

The NASA’s Goddard Space Weather Center predicted that the CME moved at almost 1,400 miles per second, and reached Earth’s magnetosphere – the magnetic envelope that surrounds Earth – about 32 hours or so after it occurred.
While the intense solar radiation from a CME can interfere with spacecraft sensors and ground based electrical systems they also create huge auroras over the north and south polar areas.
SDO has also discovered linked features on the Sun hundreds of thousands of miles apart. These features interact to create gargantuan surface features spanning an entire hemisphere of the Sun. This discovery is forcing a major revision of theories developed in the 20th century that were formed without the benefit of rapid imaging. This capability, along with spacecraft that have high resolution cameras onboard are revealing that the Sun can generate interactions on a gigantic scale.
Gigantic filament stretches around an entire hemisphere of the Sun, one of several such unprecedented events seen by SDO. Photo Credit: NASA

The Sun is a star, and by observing it much more closely – tremendous data can be obtained about what is happening on the surface of every distant pinpoint of light in the night sky going back millions of light years.

SDO is readied at Goddard prior to shipment to Cape Canaveral. The amount of images and data that SDO could feed is equivalent to downloading half-a-million I-Tunes each day. By some estimates, SDO will transmit 50 times more science data than any mission in NASA’s history. Its images all have 10 times greater resolution than high definition television. Photo Credit: NASA
Astronauts Stephen Bowen (top) and Alvin Drew (bottom) perform the first spacewalk on shuttle Discovery's final mission STS-133. Photo Credit: NASA

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