How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word about NASA, Space Missions and Science

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Here’s a headline you don’t see too often: “Rubber Chicken Turned NASA Mission Mascot Embarks on a Flight to Space.” Seriously, this is a true story. If you’ve not heard of Camilla Corona, or Camilla SDO as she is sometimes called, you probably haven’t been paying attention to one of the most exciting current space missions, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Camilla is virtually everywhere in the world of social media, and she travels around the country – and the planet – spreading the word about what’s going on with our Sun and how SDO is helping us learn more about it. As mission mascot, she is leading the way – and setting the bar pretty high for other NASA missions to follow – about how to get the public interested in space and science.

“People ask, ‘what does a rubber chicken have to do with a science mission?’ but as long as we get people’s attention, we can then divert it to what SDO does,” said Romeo Durscher, Camilla’s PR assistant and ‘bodyguard.’ “However, we didn’t know it would go this far when we started this.”

Camilla oversees the images coming back from the Solar Dyamics Observatory's instruments at Lockheed Martin facility in California. Credit: Nancy Atkinson.

The story of Camilla goes back to the early days of SDO at Goddard Space Flight Center, when mission scientist Barbara Thompson introduced Camilla as something funny for the science team.

“Barbara was very persistent – she brought little Camillas and rubber chickens to all the science meetings to lighten up the room,” Durscher said.” The question always is, ‘why Camilla?’ and the official answer is because she is the same color as the sun. Over the years, Camilla has just become more and more integrated into the education and public outreach side of the mission.”

“Camilla started as an inter-office joke and soon became the mascot for the science side of the mission,” said Aleya Van Doren, the formal education lead for SDO. “It is not uncommon for someone who has been working on SDO for awhile to receive a rubber chicken as sort of a ‘you’ve earned your keep’ award. She’s a great moral booster for the science team, as well as being a wonderful ‘hook’ to get the public interested in the mission.”

Van Doren said the fun part is bringing Camila to public events or classrooms. “She is a great conversation starter with kids, especially with elementary children. Our main focus is getting the science out to the public, so whatever means we can use to draw in people’s interest and see the amazing things that SDO is doing, we consider it worthwhile.”

I’ve personally seen children — as well as adults — literally melt when meeting Camilla and get very excited about interacting with her.

As far as the public side of things, Van Doren said they are pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention her social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have been bringing to the mission.

“Romeo does a great job bringing her around to various places. Her schedule is quite full for a chicken. I would be really tired if I was that busy,” Van Doren said.

Which begs the question: just how many Camillas are there?

“That is a guarded secret,” Van Doren said, “but there is really only one official Camilla. We are very careful to make sure she is only in one place at a time. But sometimes airfare gets expensive, so she’ll have a body double in one place. Jet-setting around the country can sometimes be difficult.”

Durscher is the keeper of what is now the official Camilla, but confirmed that she does indeed have some body doubles. At first, it was easy to have Camilla be in several places at once. That was before she started wearing clothes.

Camilla wears a spacesuit in hopes of catching a ride with the astronauts heading out on the STS-133 mission. Credit: SDO

“Our rubber chicken had the SDO mission pin on her left side, and that was Camilla,” Durscher said. “We had one at Goddard, one at Stanford University, and another at our education office, so there were several Camillas, and we had the story that she was travelling here and there, but now it gets a little more complicated.”

Cynthia Butcher, a fan of Camilla, knits specially made outfits for a rubber chicken, including a spacesuit, a Star Trek uniform, an “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit, and many more.

“Cynthia is a wonderful person, one of the first followers of Camilla on Twitter and Facebook,” Durscher said. “She really enjoyed what Camilla was doing, and said that Camilla should have a flight suit and that she would make her one. When we got the outfits, we were thrilled. But now we have to have a storyline for why we sometimes we might see Camilla without any clothes on – maybe the suit will be in the dry cleaning, or something.”

Camilla with astronaut Robert Curbeam. Credit: SDO

Camilla has met astronauts, trained at Johnson Space Center, attended World Space Week in Nigeria and a science fair in Malaysia, been on hand at many NASA Tweet-ups and launches, and even given a speech at the Smithsonain Ignite event at the Smithsonian Museum – well, actually Durscher ended up speaking for her, as Camilla lost her voice shouting at all the animals in the Washington DC Zoo the day before.

But Camilla’s main goal is to educate, inspire (especially to inspire girls to go into science and engineering) to build community and have fun — as well as bringing the beautiful, stunning and wonderful images and data from SDO into the classroom.

“We have lots of things teachers can use to educate their students about the Sun — hands-on experiments, beautiful images — and students can have the opportunity interact with mission scientists,” Durscher said.

Camilla and her crew pose with the poster for the BTS-1 (Balloon Transport System).

But now Camilla embarks on what might be her greatest adventure ever. She is actually going to space. Camilla will be going to the edge of space in a weather balloon with a camera for the Camilla Space Weather Project.

“We are using that launch as the hook for new program we are doing to get the public interested in space weather forecasts,” said Van Doren.

Space weather refers to conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind that impact Earth’s atmosphere and can influence space and ground based technology and even human health.

“We have a page of a series of questions that people can go through to make a prediction of whether a space weather event is going to take place – such as the bright flares SDO has observed recently, and if those events will affect Earth, such as auroras being visible, or if it could cause any problems with satellites or related technology,” said Van Doren.

Launch is currently scheduled for this weekend, May 8 from the University of Houston central campus. Launch preparations begin at 10 AM, and will be webcast on UStream.

“We want to make sure that when Camilla launches it will be safe, so we’ve been having people make a space weather forecast and see whether or not it will be good conditions for launching to the upper atmosphere. Of course we don’t want Camilla to be bombarded with radiation, so classrooms have been making recommendations if this will be a good time to go or not,” Van Doren said.

Durscher said that as of Friday, the mission was go.

Camilla, Skye Bleu, and Fuzz Aldrin get ready for their mission. Credit: SDO

Camilla is not going to space alone. She’s traveling with Fuzz Aldrin from “Bears on Patrol” which provides US police officers with free teddy bears to use in cases involving small children, as well as a stuffed pig, Skye Bleu, the STEM (science technology engineering and math) outreach mascot for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronnautics (AIAA) and a patch to represent Smokey Bear.

“Our goal is to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and explorers,” Durscher said, “and we’ll make sure that Camilla and her crew will come back alive.”

Let’s hope so. Camilla has lots more work to do spreading the word about NASA, space and science.

Me and Camilla.

Sun Erupts with Enormous X2 Solar Flare

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, [and the Stardust flyby of Comet Tempel 1] the Sun erupted with a massive X-Class flare, the most powerful of all solar events on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST . This was the first X-Class flare in Solar Cycle 24 and the most powerful X-ray flare in more than four years.

The video above shows the flare as imaged by the AIA instrument at 304 Angstroms on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. More graphic videos below show the flare in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms and as a composite with SOHO’s coronagraph.

Spaceweather Update: A CME hit Earth’s magnetic field at approximately 0100 UT on Feb. 18th (8:00 pm EST on Feb. 17th). Send me or comment your aurora photos

The eruption registered X2 on the Richter scale of solar flares and originated from Active Region 1138 in the sun’s southern hemisphere. The flare directly follows several M-class and C-class flares over the past few days which were less powerful. The explosion also let loose a coronal mass ejection (CME) headed for Earth’s orbit. It was speeding at about 900 Km/second.
CME’s can disrupt communications systems and the electrical power grid and cause long lasting radiation storms.

According to a new SDO update, the particle cloud from this solar storm is weaker than first expected and may produce some beautiful aurora in the high northern and southern latitudes on Feb. 17 (tonight).

According to spaceweather.com, skywatchers in the high latitudes should be alert for auroras after nightfall Feb. 17 from this moderately strong geomagnetic storm.

Send me your aurora reports and photos to post here

Sources: SDO website, spaceweather.com

NASA SDO – Big, Bright Flare February 15, 2011

Video Caption: Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare at 0153 UT or 8:50 pm ET on February 15, 2011, the largest flare since Dec. 2006 and the biggest flare so far in Solar Cycle 24. Active Region 1158 is in the southern hemisphere, which has been lagging the north in activity but now leads in big flares! The movie shows a close-up of the flaring region taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms. Much of the vertical line in the image and the staggered lines making an “X” are caused by the bright flash overwhelming our imager. A coronal mass ejection was also associated with the flare. The movie shows activity over about two days (Feb. 13-15, 2011). Since the active region was facing Earth, there is a good chance that Earth will receive some effects from these events, with some possibility of mid-latitude aurora Feb. 16 – 18. Credit: NASA SDO

X2 flare Video combo from SDO and SOHO

Video caption: The X2 flare of Feb. 15, 2011 seen by SDO (in extreme ultraviolet light) enlarged and superimposed on SOHO’s coronagraph that shows the faint edge of a “halo” coronal mass ejection as it races away from the Sun. The video covers about 11 hours

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This image taken by SDO's AIA instrument at 171 Angstrom shows the current conditions of the quiet corona and upper transition region of the Sun. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA

First Ever Whole Sun View .. Coming Soon from STEREO

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“For the first time in the history of humankind we will be able to see the front and the far side of the Sun … Simultaneously,” Madhulika Guhathakurta told Universe Today. Guhathakurta is the STEREO Program Scientist at NASA HQ.

Courtesy of NASA’s solar duo of STEREO spacecraft.

And the noteworthy event is timed to coincide just perfectly with ‘Super Bowl SUNday’ – Exactly one week from today on Feb. 6 during Super Bowl XLV !

“This will be the first time we can see the entire Sun at one time,” said Dean Pesnell, NASA Solar Astrophysicist in an interview for Universe Today. Pesnell is the Project Scientist for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

This remarkable milestone will be achieved when NASA’s two STEREO spacecraft reach position 180 degrees separate on opposite sides of the Sun on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011 and can observe the entire 360 degrees of the Sun.

“We are going to celebrate by having a football game that night!” Pesnell added in jest.

The nearly identical STEREO spacecraft – dubbed STEREO Ahead and STEREO Behind – are orbiting the sun and providing a more complete picture of the Suns environment with each passing day. One probe follows Earth around the sun; the other one leads the Earth.

STEREO is the acronym for Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory. Their mission is to provide the very first, 3-D “stereo” images of the sun to study the nature of coronal mass ejections.

Today, (Jan 30) the twin STEREO spacecraft are 179.1 degrees apart and about 90 degrees from Earth, and thus virtually at the midpoint to the back of the sun. See the orbital location graphics above and below.

Both probes were flung into space some four years ago and have been hurtling towards this history making date and location ever since. The wedge of unseen solar territory has been declining.

As the STEREO probes continue flying around to the back side of the sun, the wedge of unseen solar territory on the near side will be increasing and the SDO solar probe will play a vital gap filling role.

“SDO provides the front side view of the sun with exquisite details and very fast time resolution,” Gutharka told me. For the next 8 years, when combined with SDO data, the full solar sphere will still be visible.

The Whole Sun will be simultaneously Imaged for the First tIme ever on Super Bowl SUNday Feb. 6.
For the past 4 years, the two STEREO spacecraft have been moving away from the Earth and gaining a more complete picture of the sun. On February 9, 2011, NASA will hold a press conference to reveal the first ever images of the entire sun and discuss the importance of seeing all of our dynamic star.
Credit: NASA

The solar probes were launched together aboard a Delta II rocket from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida on October 25, 2006. See Launch Video and Photos below.

Whole Solar Sphere A Goldmine for Science

I asked Pesnell and Guhathakurta to explain why this first ever whole Sun view is a significant scientific milestone.

“Until now there has always been an unseen part of the Sun,” Pesnell explained. “Although that unseen part has always rotated into view within a week or two, a global model must include all of the Sun to understand where the magnetic field goes through the surface.”

“Also, from the Earth we can see only one pole of the Sun at a time, while with STEREO we can see both poles at the same time.

“The next few years of overlapping coronal images will be a goldmine of information for predicting space weather at the Earth and understanding of how the Sun works. It is like getting the GOES images of the Earth for the first time. We haven’t missed a hurricane since, and now we won’t miss an active region on the Sun,” said Pesnell.

How will the science data collected be used to understand the sun and its magnetic field?

“Coronal loops trace out the magnetic field in the corona,” Pesnell elaborated. “Understanding how that magnetic field changes requires seeing where on the surface each loop starts and stops.”

Why is it important to image the entire Sun ?

“Once images of the entire Sun are available we can model the entire magnetic field of the Sun. This has become quite important as we are using STEREO and SDO to study how the entire magnetic field of the Sun reacts to the explosions of even small flares.”

“By seeing both poles we should be able to understand why the polar magnetic field is a good predictor of solar activity,” said Pesnell.

“Seeing both sides will help scientists make more accurate maps of global coronal magnetic field and topology as well as better forecasting of active regions – areas that produce solar storms – as they rotate on to the front side. Simultaneous observations with STEREO and SDO will help us study the sun as a complete whole and greatly help in studying the magnetic connectivity on the sun and sympathetic flares, ” Guhathakurta amplified.

Latest EUVI Images from STEREO. These Extreme Ultra Violet Images from STEREO Ahead and Behind were taken on Jan. 30, 2011. Credit: NASA

Watch a solar rotation animation here combining EUVI and SDO/AIA:

What is the role and contribution of NASA’s SDO mission and how will SDO observations be coordinated with STEREO?

“As the STEREO spacecraft drift around the Sun, SDO will fill in the gap on the near of the Sun,” explained Pesnell. “For the next 4 or more years we will watch the increase in sunspots we call Solar Cycle 24 from all sides of the Sun. SDO has made sure we are not doing calibration maneuvers for a few days around February 6.”

“On Feb 6th we will view 100% of the sun,” said Guhathakurta.

At a press conference on Feb. 9, 2011, NASA scientists will reveal something that no one has even seen – The first ever images of ‘The Entire Sun’. All 360 degrees

Watch the briefing on NASA TV at 2 PM EST

More about the SDO mission and SDO science
and Coronal holes from STEREO and SDO here

STEREO Website

“3D Sun”
A STEREO Movie in Digital and IMAX was released in 2007
Watch the way cool 3D IMAX trailer below

STEREO spacecraft location map

Caption: Positions of STEREO A and B for 31-Jan-2011 05:00 UT. The STEREO spacecraft are 179.2 degrees apart and about 90 degrees from Earth on Jan. 31, 2011. This figure plots the current positions of the STEREO Ahead (red) and Behind (blue) spacecraft relative to the Sun (yellow) and Earth (green). The dotted lines show the angular displacement from the Sun. Units are in A.U. (Astronomical Units). Credit: NASA

STEREO Launch Video

Launch Video Caption: The Delta II rocket lights the evening sky as STEREO heads into space on October 25, 2006 at 8:52 p.m. The Delta II rocket lights the evening sky as STEREO heads into space. STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a multi-year mission using two nearly identical observatories, one ahead of Earth in its orbit and the other trailing behind. The duo will provide 3-D measurements of the sun and its flow of energy, enabling scientists to study the nature of coronal mass ejections and why they happen.

Fully fueled, technicians prepare the STEREO spacecraft for spin testing in the cleanroom in Titusville, Fl, while being prepared for launch. Credit: nasatech.net

Delta Launch Complex 17 comprises two launch pads and towers, 17 A & 17 B, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer
View of Delta II Launch Complex 17 by Ken Kremer

Fully clear of the smoke, STEREO streaks skyward during launch on October 25, 2006 from Pad 17B at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: nasatech.net

More STEREO Cleanroom and Launch photos from nasatech.net here

More about the SDO mission and SDO science
and Coronal holes from STEREO and SDO here

STEREO Website

“3D Sun”
A STEREO Movie in Digital and IMAX was released in 2007

Watch the way cool 3D trailer here – Trailer narrated by NASA’s Madhulika Guhathakurta
— be sure to grab hold of your Red-Cyan Glasses

Holes in the Sun’s Corona in 2 D, 3 D and Video

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A pair of coronal holes on the Sun newly imaged by NASA’s flagship solar probe, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) may cause auroral activity here on Earth soon.

The pair of holes were captured in images taken from Jan 9-12, 2011 by SDO’s AIA instrument in the extreme untraviolet (UV). The images – shown above and below – were also made into a cool timelapse video (shown below) of the rotating sun and were released by NASA as “SDO Pick of the Week” for Jan. 14, 2011.

SDO research results on the solar corona are featured as the cover photo and story for the current issue of Science magazine on Jan. 7, 2011. Updated

Science magazine Jan. 7 2011, COVER.
Multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the Sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly. Colors represent different gas temperatures: ~800,000 kelvin (K) (blue), ~1.3 million K (green), and ~2 million K (red). New observations reveal a link between hot plasma and jets propelled upward from the region immediately above the Sun's surface and help explain why the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, is much hotter than its surface. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA)
Click to enlarge all images

Coronal holes on the sun’s surface are the source of open magnetic field lines and are areas from which high-speed solar wind particles stream out into space. The fast solar wind travels at approximately 800 km/s (about 1.8 million mph). After traveling through space for a few days the particles will impact the Earth and may spark the formation of some auroral activity for lucky spectators.

The two holes developed over several days. In a video here, one hole is above the suns equator and the other is below. According to a NASA press release, the coronal holes appear dark at the extreme UV wavelength of 193 Angstroms because there is just less of the material – ionized iron- that is being imaged.

2 D Video: A Hole in the Sun’s Corona

Caption: This timelapse video shows a coronal hole, as captured in ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory around Jan. 10, 2011. Coronal holes are areas of the sun’s surface that are the source of open magnetic field lines that head way out into space. They are also the source regions of the fast solar wind, which “blows” at a relatively steady clip of 1.8 million mph. (No audio). Credit: NASA

3 D Video: Coronal holes from STEREO

Check out this 3 D movie of a coronal hole snapped by NASA’s twin STEREO solar probes orbiting the sun. You’ll need to pull out your red-cyan 3 D anaglyph glasses. First, watch the short movie with you 3 D glasses. Then, I suggest to pause the movie at several intervals for a longer look. Remember – its red on the left eye.

View more 3 D from SDO below. And enjoy more 3 D space imagery here – at a big Martian crater through the eyes of the Opportunity rover.

Caption: This STEREO image features an active region and a coronal hole. The hole is the large dark spot in the middle of the sun. Coronal holes are the source of solar wind and a generator for space weather activity. Credit: NASA

More at this NASA press release

SDO roared to space on February 11, 2010 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch photo below.

The billion dollar probe is the “crown jewel” in NASA’s solar fleet and will soon celebrate its first anniversary in space. SDO’s mission is to explore the Sun and its complex interior mechanisms in unprecedented detail. It is equipped with three science instruments (HMI, AIA, and EVE)

This Solar Dynamics Observatory image of the Sun taken on January 10, 2011 in extreme ultraviolet light captures a dark coronal hole just about at sun center. Coronal holes are areas of the Sun's surface that are the source of open magnetic field lines that head way out into space. Credit: NASA
SDO blast off on Feb. 11, 2010 atop Atlas V rocket from Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral as viewed from the KSC press site. Credit: Ken Kremer
Solar 3 D in Extreme UV - from SDO.
This 3 D image was created by combined two images that were taken in one extreme UV wavelength about 8 hours apart on June 25, 2010. The Sun's rotation created enough of a perspective change for this to work. Although the SDO mission cannot produce true 3D images of the Sun like STEREO, 3D solar images can still be made from SDO images. Credit: NASA/SDO

Near-Synchronous Explosions Connect Across the Vast Distances on the Sun

For several decades, scientists studying the sun have observed solar flares that appear to occur almost simultaneously but originated in completely different areas on the Sun. Solar physicists called them “sympathetic” flares, but it was thought these near-synchronous explosions in the solar atmosphere were too far apart – sometimes millions of kilometers distant – to be related. But now, with the continuous high-resolution and multi-wavelength observations with the Solar Dynamics Observatory, combined with views from the twin STEREO spacecraft, the scientists are seeing how these sympathetic eruptions — sometimes on opposite sides of the sun — can connect through looping lines of the Sun’s magnetic field.

“The high-quality simultaneous data we received from SDO and the STEREO spacecraft, and our subsequent analysis, enable us to present unambiguous evidence that solar regions up to 160 degrees away are involved in defining the large-scale coronal field topology for flares and CMEs,” said Dr. Carolus Schrijver, who co-presented his team’s findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

“From the very first observations with SDO we saw small events seemed to impact large regions of the sun,” said Alan Title of the Solar and Astrophysics Lab at Lockheed Martin, and co-author of the paper, speaking at a press briefing, “but because we are scientists and are sometimes not very clever, we have to sometimes be beaten over the head, and went searching for some kind of causality. It has been in last couple of months where we worked out this picture together.”

The hammer on the head was a series of solar events that took place on August 1, 2010, where nearly the entire Earth-facing side of the Sun erupted in a tumult of activity, with a large solar flare, a solar tsunami, multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the solar surface, radio bursts, and half a dozen coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

SDO, which launched in February of this year, along with the two Solar Terrestrial Relations
Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft — were ideally positioned to capture both the action on the Earth-facing side of the Sun, and most activity around the backside, leaving a wedge of only 30 degrees of the solar surface unobserved.

SDO’s Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) continuously observes the full solar corona and can trace perturbations over long distances, even if short-lived. The STEREO spacecraft were able to provide perspectives on activity on most of the “back side” of the Sun, and perhaps most importantly, SDO’s Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) provided global magnetic field connections.

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As seen in the image above, the looping magnetic field lines connected the various events on August 1. Subsequent observations have revealed similar events.

“The magnetic field lines connect to other flares and other major events, with the eruptions and flares frequently coupled across large distances,” said Schrijver. “Previously, we had been looking for the cause of explosions just in the regions from where the explosions were coming from. That might be a good way to do it, but these observations show another aspect. If we wish to know why the flare goes off, we need to know not just properties of region but also a large fraction of the solar surface, in fact sometimes not even part we can see. So maybe reason we had difficulty figuring this out was that we were not seeing everything. We have to expand our view and look at everything.”

Title compared finally figuring out that these near synchronous events are related to how scientists finally figured out continental drift. “Everyone could see how Africa and South America could have once fit together, but no one could imagine the physical processes that could make that happen,” he said, “but all of a sudden someone measured it and figured out sea floor spreading and it made perfect sense.”

In response to a question of whether the magnetic field on the Sun has areas similar to fault lines on the Earth where magnetic lines emerge repeatedly, Schrijver told Universe Today that the magnetic field lines come from the deep within the solar interior, but why it chooses to emerge in certain areas repeatedly is a mystery. “There are successive nests, where they come up one after another, or preferred regions,” he said, but our details on this are fairly weak. Most of time we don’t know where magnetic field lines will emerge from the sun.”

Title said heliophysics research is still in its infancy, but the new resources SDO provides might bring a new era in this area of study.

“We’ve reached a turning point in our ability to forecast space weather,” said Title. “We now have evidence that multiple events can be triggered by other events that occur in regions that cannot be observed from Earth orbit. This gives us a new appreciation of why solar flare and CME predictions have been less than perfect. As we seek to understand the causes of eruptive and explosive events that will improve our ability to forecast space weather, it is clear that we must be able to analyze most of the evolving global solar field, if not all of it.”

Breaking News: Watch A Gigantic Looping Solar Prominence

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The Solar Dynamics Observatory never fails to deliver absolutely stunning images from the Sun: as of 18:49 UT today, the above picture is what the Sun looked like in the ultraviolet spectrum. The prominence that you are seeing looping off the Sun is estimated at over 700,000 km across, which is about the radius of the entire Sun. Amazing!

You can head over to the Solar Dynamics Observatory site to watch this gigantic loop of solar plasma develop in real time.

There’s nothing to worry about here on Earth, though – we are safe from such activity on the Sun, even if that prominence is big enough swallow up thousands of Earths. There is no coronal-mass ejection or flare to go along with this prominence, both phenomena on the Sun that can reach Earth and mess with satellites and our power grid.

As you can see (or rather, not see) in this visible light image below, the flare seems to only be visible in the ultraviolet. Other spectra of the Sun as imaged by the SDO are available here. Why is this? Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, explains it best:

“In visible light, the light from the extremely thin material in the prominence is totally overwhelmed by the intense emission from the Sun’s surface, and is invisible. It’s only when we filter out most of the Sun’s light (and let through light specifically given off by the plasma in the prominence) that we can see it at all,” he wrote.

The Sun in the visible light spectrum, as seen from SDO at 18:00 UT. The two visible sunspots seem to be unrelated to this large prominence. Image Credit: SDO

This video shows the buildup up this most recent spectacular solar show, as this portion of the Sun comes into view from a 48-hour period between December 4th and 6th:

[UPDATE]: Here is a video that shows the prominence eruption as it expanded:

Spaceweather.com also has some other fantastic images that are linked to on their front page. Prominences like this can come crashing down quickly when they become unstable, so head over to the SDO site to watch the action as it develops!

Source: The Bad Astronomer, SDO

The Sun is Waking Up: 5 Sunspots Today

Five sunspots appeared on the Sun on August 11, 2010. Image from SolarCycle24.com

Here’s something we’ve not seen in a long while: five sunspots on the Sun at once. Is the Sun finally waking up from its unusually long and deep solar minimum slumber? While activity on the Sun usually ebbs and flows on a fairly predictable 11-year cycle, this current cycle has been anything but conventional. In 2009, there were 260 days (71% of the time) that the Sun was ‘spotless,’ but now in 2010 so far, the Sun has had spots been spotless for only 35 days. With the last solar maximum occurring in 2001, maybe the Sun is just now ramping up to the next maximum, which is set for 2013. Recent solar flares on August 1 and 7, and now these sunspots may be signaling that the Sun is “throwing off the covers” and starting to wake up.

This marvelous image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows that at about 8:55 UTC on August 1, a measurable solar flare triggered an event known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). This is where the “atmosphere” of the Sun sends out a burst of energized plasma. In this case, nearly the entire Earth-facing side of the Sun was involved.

The High Energy Astrophysics Picture of the week Page used that great “covers” analogy:

The Sun, after a long sleep, is finally waking up. And like any irascible sleeper vigorously throwing off the covers. In this case the covers are composed of high-energy electrons and protons being shot out into space at a tremendous rate. The image above, obtained by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on August 1, shows almost the entire earth-facing side of the sun erupting at once. In this extreme ultraviolet image you can see evidence of extremely ultraviolent activity: a C3-class solar flare (white area on upper left), a solar tsunami (upper right), multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, and a coronal mass ejection. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, showered the earth with charged particles, producing spectacular aurora (northern lights) as far south as Iowa and Telemark, Norway.

And another CME on August 7 has not yet triggered a major geomagnetic storm, but high latitude sky watchers should take a look tonight, just in case.

Sources: High Energy Astrophysics Picture of the Week, SolarCycle24.com, SpaceWeather.com

Are You Keeping an Eye on SDO Keeping an Eye on the Sun?

Have you been checking out the Solar Dynamics Observatory website and seeing all the amazing, high resolution images of our closest star? If not, you should. Above is a great new video of SDO’s capabilities and latest images. If you want to see what the Sun looks like right now, go to SDO’s homepage. And here’s a link to the SDO image browser where you can see the different images in different wavelengths from the AIA (Atmospheric Imaging Assembly) and HMI (Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager). If you choose the date range option, you can see a “movie” of the Sun’s activity. For example, check out the enormous coronal hole in the northern hemisphere seen last week in AIA 193 (date range 6/28 to 7/3), allow all the images to download and then press “Play.” Completely awesome. The SDO website should be part of your daily internet routine!

SDO Wows With ‘First Light’ Images, Videos

A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by SDO on March 30, 2010. False colors trace different gas temperatures. Reds are relatively cool (about 60,000 Kelvin, or 107,540 F); blues and greens are hotter (greater than 1 million Kelvin, or 1,799,540 F). Credit: NASA

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NASA’s newest solar satellite is officially open for business and all we can say is, “Wow!” The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) released its “first light’ images on Wednesday, showing incredible views of the sun, with extreme close-ups, never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward from sunspots and high-resolution looks at solar flares across a wide range of ultraviolet wavelength.

“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 the Heliophysics Division at NASA. “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.”

SDO launched in February and has been billed as the “Crown Jewel” of NASA’s fleet of solar observatories. This technologically advanced spacecraft is able to take images of the sun every 0.75 seconds and daily send back about 1.5 terabytes of data to Earth — the equivalent of downloading 380 full-length movies every day. The following graphic compares the capabilities of SDO with other missions and resolutions.

This image compares the relative size of SDO's imagery to that of other missions. Credit: NASA

Serendipitously, shortly after the instruments opened their doors, our recently quiet Sun began to get a little more active. The video below was created from data from the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, a group of four telescopes designed to photograph the sun’s surface and atmosphere. This data is from March 30, 2010, showing a wavelength band that is centered around 304. This extreme ultraviolet emission line is from singly ionized Helium, or He II, and corresponds to a temperature of about 50,000 degrees Celsius.

This movie captures only a fraction of SDO’s imaging capabilities. It shows the Sun’s magnetic field followed by only four of SDO’s 12 imaging wavebands. You’ll see an eruption, flare, and dimming (dark regions evacuated by the eruption) by observing the event in several different layers of the atmosphere. If you’re wondering why the movie doesn’t show all 12 layers at full resolution it’s because at high-res the movie would be nearly a third of a gigabyte in size.

The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager maps solar magnetic fields and looks beneath the sun’s opaque surface. HMI was undergoing a series of adjustments when it captured an eclipse of sorts. SDO’s view was partially blocked by the Earth. At the edges of the shadow, the Sun’s shape bends, due to the light’s refraction by the Earth’s atmosphere. SDO will have two “eclipse seasons” each year, when the orbit of SDO will intersect the Sun-Earth line.

For more images and a high-res version of the top image, see the SDO website.

Just remember — this is only the beginning of SDO’s mission!

Source: NASA

The Solar Dynamics Observatory Soars to Study the Sun

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The Solar Dynamics Observatory launched successfully – and beautifully – Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41 to begin a 5-year mission that will provide streaming, high-definition views of our sun. It was the 100th launch of the Atlas/Centaur combo, and was a gorgeous sight as it roared and soared into the blue Florida sky. “It was great; a beautiful launch,” said Dean Pesnell, SDO Project Scientist, immediately after the launch. “The rocket rises so slowly off the pad — it is wonderful to see. This is third Atlas launch I’ve seen and this is the best one so far.”

Amazingly, viewers here at Kennedy Space Center saw the Atlas rocket fly close to a sundog just as the spacecraft reached Max-Q, creating a ripple effect around the spacecraft. “We saw this sundog come out and SDO flew right through it. Then the sun dog disappeared,” said Pesnell. “This may be the first time we’ve sent a probe through a sundog, and people will be studying this, so already we are learning things about our atmosphere from SDO.”

See this amazing video shot by a 13-year-old girl in attendance at the KSC VIP site that shows the sundog and shockwave. (as noted by Jon Hanford in the comments).

Today’s countdown was extremely smooth as the high winds that thwarted Wednesday’s launch attempt calmed as the opening of the launch window approached. After counting down to the planned T-4 minute hold, launch managers proceeded directly to launch at the beginning of the window at 10:23 a.m. EST.

Project Scientist Dean Pesnell describing the launch. Image: Nancy Atkinson

“I was a little worried about the clouds coming in,” said Tom Woods, Principal Investigator for the EVE instrument on SDO, the EUV Variability Experiment, which will be studying the extreme ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. “But we were very excited to see SDO launch today, as otherwise it would have been a 10-day delay until the next attempt. It was a wonderful launch!”

“It was so beautiful,” said Lika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist immediately following the launch as we walked together back to the press building. “I can still feel the rumbling in my stomach!”

SDO science team celebrates after the launch: Dean Pesnell, Jennifer Rumburg, Chris St. Cyr, and Lika Guhathakurta. Image: Nancy Atkinson

Called the “Crown Jewel” of NASA’s fleet of solar observatories, SDO is a technologically advanced spacecraft that will take images of the sun every 0.75 seconds and daily send back about 1.5 terabytes of data to Earth — the equivalent of downloading 380 full-length movies every day.

SDO launch. Credit: Nancy Atkinson

“We’re going to be able to better understand the Sun as a star,” said Guathakurta, “but SDO will also give us a comprehensive view of how it interacts with the Earth and everything else in the solar system.

The sun’s dynamic processes affect everyone and everything on Earth. SDO will explore activity on the sun that can disable satellites, cause power grid failures, and disrupt GPS communications. SDO also will provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate.

Vapor trail from the Atlas rocket after the SDO launch. Image: Nancy Atkinson

A contrail from the launch appeared only in the region of Earth’s atmosphere where conditions were right for cloud formation. “There weren’t any clouds there, but we provided the very fine particles so that a contrail cloud appeared,” said Pesnell.

A later update confirmed that SDO separated from the Centaur and the spacecraft’s solar arrays deployed on time and correctly, and are now generating power.

Here’s the video of the launch from NASA TV: