Mercury’s Transit Captured by Hinode

The Japanese solar observing spacecraft Hinode captured this photograph of Mercury’s transit this week. Hinode, formerly known as Solar B, is currently in its shakedown period, where controllers ensure that each of its scientific instruments are working. But they couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so they pointed the spacecraft at the Sun, and watched the entire transit. Hinode should resume its normal science operations next month.
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Killer Solar Flare… on Another Star

NASA’s Swift satellite has spotted one of the most powerful stellar flares ever seen. Fortunately, this killer blast happened on a star located about 135 light-years from Earth. Had the flare occurred on the Sun, it would have triggered a mass extinction on our planet. The flaring star, II Pegasi, has a stellar companion in a very tight orbit. Their interaction has caused the tidally locked stars to spin very quickly. It’s this rapid rotation that leads to powerful stellar flares.
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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.
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Successful Liftoff for NASA’s STEREO Spacecraft

NASA’s solar-observing STEREO spacecraft were carried into space Wednesday evening, atop a Boeing Delta II rocket. STEREO, aka the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatories, are two nearly identical observatories that will help construct 3-dimensional views of the Sun and its stormy environment. Over the next few months, the spacecraft will perform a series of maneuvers so that one travels ahead of the Earth in orbit, and another trails behind the planet. This will give a view of the Sun from two different vantage points.
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Solar B Prepares for Launch

Solar flares are the most powerful explosions in the Solar System, releasing enormous energy in the form of radiation, high energy particles and magnetic fields. A new spacecraft, Solar B, developed by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is set to launch on September 22, 2006, and will be able to detect these flares as they’re forming. The spacecraft will measure the movement of magnetic fields across the surface of the Sun, to help scientists predict when they will build up to a flare.
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STEREO Spacecraft Set for Launch

Get set to see the Sun… in thrilling 3-D! At the end of August, NASA will launch its twin STEREO spacecraft into orbit around the Sun, to provide the first stereoscopic views of coronal mass ejections. The spacecraft will be lofted into space on Thursday, August 31, to begin a 2-year mission; one spacecraft will fly ahead of the Earth in its orbit, and the other will tail back. With this 3-D view, scientists will be able to accurately track the direction and speed of coronal mass ejections, providing much better space weather forecast.
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A Magnetically Backwards Sunspot

Astronomers have been waiting to see a very special kind of sunspot, and this week, they saw what they were hoping for: it was backward. It only lasted a few hours, but it reveals that the Sun’s next solar cycle could be getting underway. As the Sun moves through its 11-year cycle of solar maximum and minimums, the magnetic orientation of its sunspots reverses. Solar astronomers think that the upcoming Cycle 24 should be one of the stormiest in decades, producing many sunspots and powerful solar storms. The auroras should be beautiful.
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Sun’s Corona Simulated

A new simulation by NASA and the National Science Foundation accurately predicted what the Sun’s corona should look like during a recent solar eclipse. The corona is a turbulent region around the Sun which is shaped by twisting magnetic fields. Billions of tonnes of plasma are ejected into space as these fields suddenly snap to new configurations. The simulation too 4 days to complete on a supercomputer with 700 processors.
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SOHO Mission Extended Through 2009

Artist illustration of SOHO and the Sun. Image credit: ESA. Click to enlarge
NASA and ESA’s long-running Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has been given another mission extension, this time until December 2009. The spacecraft was launched on December 2, 1995, and it has been steadily observing the Sun ever since. Over the next two years, five additional spacecraft will join SOHO to observe the Sun. ESA is involved in two of these spacecraft: Solar B, and Proba-2. NASA will launch the STEREO pair of spacecraft, as well as the Solar Dynamics Orbiter in 2008.

New funding, to extend the mission of ESA’s venerable solar watchdog SOHO, will ensure it plays a leading part in the fleet of solar spacecraft scheduled to be launched over the next few years.

Since its launch on 2 December 1995, The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has provided an unprecedented view of the Sun – and not just the side facing the Earth. Two teams have now developed techniques for using SOHO to recreate the conditions on the far side of the Sun. The new funding will allow its mission to be extended from April 2007 to December 2009.

Despite being over ten years old now, SOHO just keeps on working, monitoring the activity on the Sun and allowing scientists to see inside the Sun by recording the seismic waves that ripple across the surface of our nearest star.

More than 2300 scientists have used data from the solar observatory to forward their research, publishing over 2400 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. During the last two years, at least one SOHO paper has been accepted for publication every working day.

“This mission extension will allow SOHO to cement its position as the most important spacecraft in the history of solar physics,” says Bernhard Fleck, SOHO’s project scientist, “There is a lot of valuable work for this spacecraft still to do.”

During the next two years, five new solar spacecraft will join SOHO in orbit. ESA is involved in two of these spacecraft. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (ISAS/JAXA) has built Solar B and will launch it later this year. ESA will supply the use of a ground station at Svalbard, Norway in exchange for access to the data.

Next year, ESA will launch Proba-2, a technology demonstration satellite that carries solar instruments. In particular, it will carry a complementary instrument to SOHO’s EIT camera. Whilst EIT concentrates on the origin and early development of solar eruptions, Proba-2’s camera will be able to track them into space.

NASA plans to launch the STEREO pair of spacecraft later this year, and the Solar Dynamics Orbiter in 2008. Far from making SOHO obsolete, these newer solar satellites embrace it as a crucial member of the team. SOHO will provide a critical third point of view to assist the analysis of STEREO’s observations. Also, SOHO’s coronagraph will remain unique. The instrument is capable of blotting out the glare from the Sun so that the tenuous outer atmosphere of the Sun is visible for study.

“By next year, we will have a fleet of spacecraft studying the Sun,” says Hermann Opgenoorth, Head of Solar System Missions Division at ESA. This will advance the International Living With a Star programme (ILWS), an international collaboration of scientists dedicated to a long-term study of the Sun and its effects on Earth and the other solar system planets.

ILWS will possibly culminate in the launch of the advanced ESA satellite, Solar Orbiter, around 2015. It is designed to travel close to the Sun, to gain a close-up look at the powerful processes at the heart of our Solar System.

Original Source: ESA News Release