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

Previously Unseen Super-Hot Plasma Jets Heat the Sun’s Corona

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The mystery of the Sun’s corona may finally be solved. For years researchers have known – and wondered why – the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, is considerably hotter than its surface. But now, using the combined visual powers of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and Japan’s Hinode satellite, scientists have made direct observations of jets of plasma shooting off the Sun’s surface, heating the corona to millions of degrees. The existence of these small, narrow jets of plasma, called spicules has long been known, but they had never been directly studied before and were thought to be too cool to have any appreciable heating effect. But a good look with new “eyes” reveals a new kind of spicule that moves energy from the Sun’s interior to create its hot outer atmosphere.

“Heating of spicules to millions of degrees has never been directly observed, so their role in coronal heating had been dismissed as unlikely,” says Bart De Pontieu, the lead author and a solar physicist at LMSAL.


Solar physicst and former Universe Today writer Ian O’Neill (and current Discovery Space producer, and of Astroengine fame) compared the anomaly of the Sun’s atmosphere being hotter than the surface to if the air surrounding a light bulb was a couple of magnitudes hotter than the bulb’s surface. And, he said, you’d want to know why it appears the solar atmosphere is breaking all kinds of thermodynamic laws.

Over the years, experts have proposed a variety of theories, and as De Pontieu said, the spicule theory had been dismissed when it was found spicule plasma did not reach coronal temperatures.

Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit: NASA

But In 2007, De Pontieu and a group of researchers identified a new class of spicules that moved much faster and were shorter lived than the traditional spicules. These “Type II” spicules shoot upward at high speeds, often in excess of 60 miles per second (100 kilometers per second), before disappearing. The rapid disappearance of these jets suggested that the plasma they carried might get very hot, but direct observational evidence of this process was missing.

Enter SDO and its Atmospheric Imaging Assembly instrument which launched in February 2010, along with NASA’s Focal Plane Package for the Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) on the Japanese Hinode satellite.

“The high spatial and temporal resolution of the newer instruments was crucial in revealing this previously hidden coronal mass supply,” said Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory. “Our observations reveal, for the first time, the one-to-one connection between plasma that is heated to millions of degrees kelvin and the spicules that insert this plasma into the corona.”

The spicules are accelerated upward into the solar corona in fountain-like jets at speeds of approximately 31 to 62 miles per second (50 to 100 kilometers per second). The research team says that the majority of the plasma is heated to temperatures between 0.02 and 0.1 million Kelvin, while a small fraction is heated to temperatures above one million Kelvin.

A key step in learning more about the Sun, according to De Pontieu, will be to better understand the interface region between the Sun’s visible surface, or photosphere, and its corona. Another NASA mission, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), is scheduled for launch in 2012. IRIS will provide high-fidelity data on the complex processes and enormous contrasts of density, temperature, and magnetic field between the photosphere and corona. Researchers hope this will reveal more about the spicule heating and launch mechanisms.
This research appears in the 07 January issue of Science.

Sources: Science, Astroengine

Spectacular Photos from the Jan. 4 Partial Solar Eclipse

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Millions across Earth enjoyed one of nature’s most awesomely spectacular events during today’s (Jan. 4) partial solar eclipse – the first of four set to occur in 2011. And there was nothing partial about it, for those lucky eyewitnesses where it was visible in parts of Europe, Africa and Central Asia. The eclipse reached its maximum, about 85%, in Sweden. See the maximum stunner above – taken despite pessimistic weather forecasts -by Peter Rosen in Stockholm, Sweden, with more photos from the sequence here at spaceweather.com

Probably the most technically amazing feat is the double solar eclipse captured in one image by renowned astrophotographer Theirry Legault – see below – boasting both the ISS and the Moon on the eclipsed sun’s face. Legault had traveled to the deserts of the Sultanate of Oman, near to the capital of Muscat, for this rare spectacle of nature. The ISS was calculated to be visible in a thin strip barely 11 kilometers wide, according to Astronomie Info news. The ISS transit lasted just about 1 second, speeding by at 28,000 km/sec.

See a global compilation of gorgeous eclipse photos here and comment or send us more.
Update 1/6/11: this is a work in progress so please check back again.
New readers photos and eyewitness accounts added below today; as received

Click to enlarge all photos
First up: Double Solar Eclipse by renowned astrophotographer Theirry Legault in Oman

Amazing Double Solar Eclipse with the ISS and the Moon captured in one image in the deserts of the Sultanate of Oman. Credit: Theirry Legault

Check out this exciting gallery of images contributed by eclipse watchers from multiple locations around the world, on Flickr

Composition of 8 different exposures between 8.10 and 9.18 (local) recorded with solar filter and added to a unfiltered picture at the beginning of sequence. Taken with a Sony DSCW-1 with 35mm equivalent focal length. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo, Pescara, Italy

Here is a collection of images and an eyewitness report sent to me by Marco Di Lorenzo, in Pescara, Italy

Filtered and unfiltered views at 9.11 local time. Credit: Marco Di Lorenzo

Marco writes; Pescara is located at 42.467°N and 14.225°E, about in the center of Italy on the Adriatic sea. I chose my location at the new pedestrian bridge because it is a modern structure which offers a nice foreground and also an open, elevated viewpoint. I used a couple of cameras plus a digital video camera. All the cameras were mounted on a tripod.

The weather was cold and the situation didn’t improve in the mid morning. Illumination was comparable to a slightly foggy day. The frigid temperature didn’t encourage people to go out and check. However some people did venture out. Someone asked me some info on eclipses and how to take pictures of it – very hard indeed, especially if you use a cellular phone !

Combo of 2 pictures taken few seconds apart using solar filter and different exposure; local time was 9.11 AM, near maximum. Marco Di Lorenzo

Urijian Poernick sent these photos and description:
“Colorful Solar Eclipse” at Halley Astronomical Observatory, Heesch, The Netherlands

Partial Solar eclipse and flock of birds from Heesch, The Netherlands. Credit: Urijian Poernick

The weather forecast predicted overcast skies with only a few small bright intervals in all parts of The Netherlands. Nevertheless, dozens of members of Halley Astronomical Society and visitors, including many children, challenged the cold winter weather and came together on the flat roof of Halley Astronomical Observatory in The Netherlands.

Partial Solar eclipse from Heesch, The Netherlands. Credit: Urijian Poernick
After sunrise at 7:44 UT (8:44 local time) they all looked at a narrow opening in the cloud deck near the eastern horizon. At 8:00 UT the sun showed itself: first we saw the left horn of the eclipse and a few moments later the right one.

Due to the clouds and veils it was a very colorful eclipse, with all tints of red and yellow. After twenty minutes the sun and the moon disappeared behind the overcast skies again and they didn’t come back before the end of the eclipse (9:39 UT).
During this short period everyone could watch the eclipse through the telescope and we were all enthusiastic. It was a beautiful spectacle! www.sterrenwachthalley.nl

Gianluca Masi is the National Coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders in Italy and captured this pair of photos from partially overcast Rome, Italy. The clouds contributed to make for a delightfully smoky eclipsed sun

Smoky eclipsed sun from Rome, Italy. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Credit: Gianluca Masi

Edwin van Schijndel sent me this report from the Netherlands:

I made some pictures in the southwest of the Netherlands. The weather conditions were not so good in the early morning, most places were covered by clouds so we decided to move about 70 miles to the southwest from our hometown. Finally we stopped not far from the city of Bergen op Zoom and were able to see sunrise while most of the sun was covered. It was splendid!

Eclipsed sunrise from Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands. Credit: Edwin van Schijndel

Unfortunately there came more clouds so the rising sun disappeared and we drove 20 miles to the north just before Rotterdam and the sky was more clear at this place. Again we took some pictures but the maximum covering of the sun had been a few minutes before. After all this wasn’t really a pity, we were very lucky to have seen the rising of the sun and be able to make some nice pictures of the partial eclipse. Many people in the Netherlands saw less or even nothing.

Credit: Edwin van Schijndel

Credit: Edwin van Schijndel

Send us or comment more solar eclipse photos to post here. ken : [kremerken at yahoo.com]

Look here for some photos from the recent total lunar eclipse on Dec. 21, 2010

Read a great preview about the eclipse by Tammy Plotner

…………………..
More Readers Photos and Eyewitness Accounts. Beautiful, Thanks ! ken

Story and Photos sent me by Stefano De Rosa. Turin, Italy

Early in the morning, I moved to a site close to Turin (Italy) where the forecast was not so bad as in my city to try to observe and photograph the partial solar eclipse. Unfortunately, when I arrived it was cloudy and foggy and so decided to go back home. Technical details: Canon Eos 1000d, F/22; 150-500mm lens @ 500mm; ISO. 1/1600 sec

Turin, Italy. Credit: Stefano De Rosa

Suddenly, as I was sadly driving on the motorway, close to the city of Alessandria, noticed a little break on the clouds from my rearview mirror: I stopped the car and, after a quick set up, managed to capture the crescent Sun!
http://ofpink.wordpress.com
Well, I hope you carefully looked back before hitting the brakes ! – ken
Turin, Italy. Credit: Stefano De Rosa

……..

Story and Photos sent me by Roy Keeris, Zeist, The Netherlands

Middelkerke, The Netherlands. Credit: Roy Keeris

Me and a friend (Casper ter Kuile) wanted to see the eclipse from The Netherlands. If clouds should intervene, we planned to drive a little (max. a couple of hours) to a place with a better chance for a clear sky. During the night we checked weather forecasts and satellite images. We were pretty unsure if we would succeed in seeing the eclipse, because it was pretty cloudy, and especially the low clouds tend to be quite unpredictable. In the end we chose to drive to Middelkerke (near Oostende) in Belgium because of a clear spot approaching from the North Sea.

Middelkerke, The Netherlands. Credit: Roy Keeris

We arrived at the Belgian coast just in time before sunrise. There we witnessed the eclipse from the top of a dune. About 25 minutes after sunrise the sun appeared from behind the lower clouds, just when the eclipse was at its maximum. It was magical!
First we saw the right ‘horn’ and then the left one appeared. From then on we watched the rest of the eclipse and took many pictures. [no pics from Casper ??]

Later we heard that despite the clouds, many people in The Netherlands were able to see the eclipse. There was a long stretch with a clear zone in the clouds- near the border of Germany.

Middelkerke, The Netherlands. Credit: Roy Keeris

If they had a clear horizon, people could look underneath the clouds and were just able to see the sunrise. I could even have seen it at home from my apartment on the 13th floor! But the trip was fun. It’s always nice to hunt for the right place to be at these events.

Here are some pictures I took from Middelkerke. They were shot with a Canon 400D in combination with a Meade ETS-70 telescope and a Tamron 20-200mm lens.

Thanks – Yes the hunt is half the fun. ken

………………

Story and Photos sent me by Igal Pat-El, Director, Givatayim Observatory, Tel Aviv, Israel

We took some images of the Jan. 4 Solar Eclipse from the Givatayim Observatory, just near Tel-Aviv, Israel. We were pleased to have Prof. Jay Passachoff as a guest during the eclipse. We had a live broadcast in plan but we had to cancel it due to heavy rain from the first contact, therefore we closed the dome’s shutter and went to the balcony trying to take some quick photos of the eclipse.

Tel Aviv, Israel. All Photos Credit: Igal Pat-El, Givatayim Observatory.
Collage assembled by Ken Kremer

We had the portable PST Coronado CaK telescope with a Ca filter On a Alt-Az mount (we could not do any alignment due to the rain). We took about 5 images against all odds in this very dim filter, using the Orion SS II Planetary imager, all of them through the haze and clouds.

Thanks, Igal. Another good lesson learned. Take a chance. You never know what you’ll get till you try !
I’ve combined Igal’s photos into a collage for an enhanced view. ken

See more photos and a video in comments section below

Breaking News: The Sun Worked 175 Years Ago!

The sunspot butterfly diagram. This modern version is constructed (and regularly updated) by the solar group at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

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You’ll have to forgive my title. After writing so many articles as moderately as I could, I couldn’t help but engage in a bit of sensationalism of my own, especially in the interest of sarcasm. Although it’s not especially exciting that the sun has indeed been working for nearly two centuries (indeed, much longer than that), what is interesting is how using historical data, scientists have confirmed that process we see today have been relatively consistent since 1825.


The observations revolve around a familiar diagram known as the Butterfly diagram (pictured above). This diagram depicts the position of sunspots at various latitudes on the sun’s surface as time progresses. At the beginning of a cycle, sunspots start of at high latitudes and as the cycle progresses, appear at lower and lower latitudes until they disappear and the cycle repeats. The pattern formed resembles the wings of a butterfly, thereby giving the diagram its name.

Although sunspots have been observed as far back as 364 BC by Chinese astronomers, telescopic observations of them did not start until the early 1600’s. Continuous observation of the sun and its spots started in 1876 at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. There Edward Maunder recognized the pattern of sunspots and published them in the format that is the now famous Butterfly diagram in 1904. The diagram, as its usually shown only comprises data starting from around 1876 and continuing until present day. But the use of new records have extended the diagram back an additional 51 years, covering four new solar cycles. Although many observations exist with total sunspot counts, this new set of data includes detailed documentation of the position of the spots on the solar disc.

The observations were created by German astronomer Heinrich Schwabe. Originally an apothecary, he won a telescope in a lottery in 1825 and was fascinated, selling his family business four years later. Schwabe observed the Sun compulsively attempting to discover a new planet with an orbit interior to Mercury by witnessing it transiting the Sun. Although this effort was doomed to failure, Schwabe maintained detailed records of the sunspots. He even recognized the pattern of spots occurred in an 11 year cycle and published the discovery in 1843. It was met with little attention for several years until it was included in Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos. Due to this discovery, the 11 year solar cycle is also referred to as the Schwabe cycle.

From 1825 until 1867, Schwabe compiled at least 8468 observations of the Sun’s disc, drawn on 5cm circles. On his death, these documents, as well as the rest of his scientific works, were donated to the Royal Astronomical Society of London, and in 2009, were provided to a team of researchers for digitization. From the 8468 drawings, 7299 “have a coordinate system which is found to be aligned with the celestial equator” making them suitable for translation into scientific data.

Thus far, the team has converted 11% of the images into usable data and already, it has created a detailed butterfly diagram preceding those produced elsewhere. From it, the astronomers undertaking the conversion have made some interesting observations. The cycle beginning around 1834 was weaker than others around that time. The following one, starting around 1845, displayed a notable asymmetry where sunspots in the southern hemisphere were conspicuously lacking for the first 1-2 years of the cycle, whereas most cycles are fairly well mirrored. Although unusual, such phase shifts are not unprecedented. In fact, another study using historical records has demonstrated that, for the last 300 years, one hemisphere has always led (although not usually so greatly) for several cycles before trading off.

As with the recently discussed historical project on weather trends this reanalysis of historical data is one of many such projects giving us a broader picture of the trends we see today and how they have changed over time. While undoubtedly, many will be demonstrated to be mundane and familiar, undeserving of the exaggerated significance of my title, this is how science works: by expanding our knowledge to test our expectations.

NOTE: I’d Emailed the team asking for permission to show their image of the historical butterfly diagram, but since I haven’t gotten permission, I didn’t reproduce it here. But you can still view it in the paper. Go do so. It’s awesomely familiar.

Amazing Sunspot Image from New Solar Telescope

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A new type of adaptive optics for solar observations has produced some incredible results, providing the most detailed image of a sunspot ever obtained in visible light. A new telescope built by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Big Bear Solar Observatory has seen its ‘first light’ using a deformable mirror, which is able to reduce atmospheric distortions. This is the first facility-class solar observatory built in more than a generation in the U.S.

The New Solar Telescope (NST) is located in the mountains east of Los Angeles. It has 97 actuators that make up the deformable mirror. By the summer of 2011, in collaboration with the National Solar Observatory, BBSO will have upgraded the current adaptive optics system to one utilizing a 349 actuator deformable mirror. The telescope has a 1.6 m clear aperture, with a resolution covering about 50 miles on the Sun’s surface.

The NST will be the pathfinder for an even larger ground-based telescope, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope to be built over the next decade. Philip R. Goode from NJIT is leading a partnership with the National Solar Observatory (NSO) to develop a new and more sophisticated kind of adaptive optics, known as multi-conjugate adaptive optics. This new optical system will allow the researchers to increase the distortion-free field of view to allow for better ways to study these larger and puzzling areas of the Sun, and a 4-meter aperture telescope will be built in the next decade.

Source: NJIT

New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch

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Sun-worshiper alert! Now you can have the chance to help scientists spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research. The ‘hottest’ new Citizen Science project from the “Zooniverse” is Solar Storm Watch. Volunteers can spot storms and track their progress as they hurtle across space towards our planet. Your “clicks” and input will help solar scientists better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth. “The more people looking at our data, the more discoveries we will make,” said Dr. Chris Davis, Project Scientist with the STEREO mission. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”

Solar Storm Watch has been in Beta testing for about two months, but is now officially open for business. “It’s been wonderful to watch the team get ready for a flood of data,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse — new citizen science projects that that use the Galaxy Zoo model — of which Solar Storm Watch is a part. ” I’m sure there are discoveries there already.”

“I’ve been sitting at my desk watching the results roll in and there are plenty of CMEs that just need a few more clicks,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of Zooniverse, who has helped solar astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich integrate their science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model.

STEREO spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. STEREO’s two wide-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometers from the Earth to the Sun.

“The Solar Stormwatch website has a game-like feel without losing any of the science,” said Julia Wilkinson, Solar Stormwatch volunteer. “I can click away identifying features and watch solar storms head towards Earth on the video clips and learn about solar science at the same time. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s educational and you get to contribute to real astronomy research without being an expert in astrophysics … The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighboring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like. Solar astronomy has never been easier!”

Solar Storm Watch has made their project very interactive with social media, as you can share your discoveries on the user forum and Flickr, as well as follow the space weather forecast on Twitter. SSW also has a blog to shre the latest news and challenges.

To participate, go to the Solar Storm Watch website. You can get a “Mission Briefing”, or watch informative videos on why the solar science community needs you!

Sources: Royal Observatory, Zooniverse

Measuring the Coronal Temperature with Iron

This image of the solar corona contains a color overlay of the emission from highly ionized iron lines and white light taken of the 2008 eclipse. Red indicates iron line Fe XI 789.2 nm, blue represents iron line Fe XIII 1074.7 nm, and green shows iron line Fe XIV 530.3 nm. This is the first such map of the 2-D distribution of coronal electron temperature and ion charge state. Credit: Habbal, et al.

Astronomers presenting at this week’s AAS conference have reported on new research measuring the temperature of the solar corona. The work combines observations of the Sun’s outer reaches from observations during total solar eclipses in 2006, 2008, and 2009. It utilized mapping of various abundances of ionized iron to build a two dimensional temperature map.

Although many introductory science classes paint temperature as a fixed number, in reality, it’s the average of a range of temperatures which is a way of quantifying the kinetic energy of the particles in question. Individual particles may be hotter (higher kinetic energy) while others may be cooler (lower kinetic energy). As these atoms move around, they can collide and these collisions will knock off electrons causing the atoms to become ionized. The degree of ionization will be indicative of just how energetic the collision was.

Those ionized atoms can then be identified spectroscopically or by using a filter to search for the wavelength at which those atoms will emit light as new electrons settle down into the previously vacated orbitals. By measuring the relative amounts of ionization astronomers can then reconstruct the range of kinetic energies in the gas and thus, temperature range which can, in turn, be used to determine the average temperature.

This is the method an international team of astronomers used to study the sun’s corona. Since light atoms don’t work well for this method (they become fully ionized or just can’t show a large range of ionization like atoms with more electrons), the astronomers chose to study the Sun’s corona through various states of iron ionization. In doing so they mapped several ionization states, including capturing for the first time, the elusive Fe IX lines (iron with 8 electrons knocked off) at 789.2 nm.

One interesting finding was that the region of emission extended to three solar radii (or 1.5 times the diameter). After this distance, the collision rate drops off and can no longer cause the ionization of atoms (however, radiative processes caused by photons from the sun can still ionize the atoms, but this is no longer indicative of the temperature of the atoms). This was further than originally anticipated.

Another result of their work showed that there is a strong correspondence between the amounts of various ions coming from the sun and that same ratio in interplanetary space as measured by the SWICS on the Advanced Composition Explorer. This connection will better help astronomers understand the working of our Sun as well as how its emissions may impact the Earth.

The full results of this work are to be published in the January 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.