First Light Looks Bright for Hinode

Japan’s newly-launched Hinode spacecraft has captured its first images of the Sun. Formerly known as Solar-B, the spacecraft launched on September 22, and opened its instruments to space on October 23, 2006. This image shows granules on the Sun’s surface, each of which is thousands of kilometres across. Over the course of the next month, mission controllers will continue to put the spacecraft through its paces. They expect to release their first scientific data in December.

Get ready for some fantastic images of the Sun.

The Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) onboard Japan’s Hinode spacecraft has opened its doors and started snapping pictures. Shown below is a “first light” image taken Oct. 23rd. The light and dark blobs are solar granules, masses of hot gas that rise and fall like water boiling atop a hot stove. Each granule is about the size of a terrestrial continent. SOT has no trouble seeing such detail from Earth-orbit 93 million miles away.

“We have confirmed that SOT is achieving a very high spatial resolution of 0.2 arcseconds, a primary objective of the instrument,” says the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in a statement released Oct. 31st. One arcsecond is an angle equal to 1/3600 of a degree – or approximately the width of a human hair held thirty feet away.

Hinode (Japanese for Sunrise, formerly known as Solar B) was launched on Sept 22th from the Uchinoura Space Center in Kyushu, Japan. “It’s on a mission to study the sun – specifically sunspots, which give rise to powerful flares and solar storms,” says John Davis, the NASA Solar-B project scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Astronomers have been studying sunspots since the days of Galileo four hundred years ago, but they still don’t know how to predict flares. Data from Hinode may solve the mystery.

Hinode carries three advanced space telescopes:

The Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) provides crystal-clear images of features on the sun’s surface. A vector magnetograph attached to the SOT will be able to trace sunspot magnetic fields, which harbor energy for explosive flares. (Engineers are still bringing the vector magnetograph online.)

The X-ray telescope (XRT) can see million-degree gas caught in the magnetic grip of sunspots and, higher up, floating in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. For reasons no one understands, the sun’s corona is much hotter than the sun’s surface – another mystery Hinode may help solve. First light for the XRT was achieved on Oct 25th: image.

The Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) is a device that can tune into specific spectral lines emitted by ions in the sun’s atmosphere. By watching these lines shift back and forth (the Doppler Shift), astronomers can keep track of solar material as it moves around. Dynamic movies from the EIS will not only entertain, but also provide crucial clues to solve the dual mystery of flares and coronal heating. First light for the EIS was obtained on October 28th.

During the month ahead, mission controllers and scientists will “progress from testing the basic operation of these telescopes to implementing full scientific operations,” according to JAXA. In December 2006 “we intend to release a summary of initial scientific findings obtained from the test images.” And then the regular flow of fantastic images will commence.

Stay tuned to Science@NASA for updates from Hinode.

Hinode is a joint mission of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

The Marshall Space Flight Center managed the NASA instrument component integration for NASA Headquarters, is managing the science operations for NASA and is also supporting science operations in Japan.

Original Source: Science@NASA Story