4 Cool Views of the Hot, Loopy, Spotty Sun

A few sunspots are now ‘peppering” the surface of our Sun — Spaceweather.com lists about 12 different sunspot groups today. Yesterday (January 7, 2013), astrophotographer John Chumack stepped outside over his lunch break and captured some cool-looking views of the Sun from his observatory in Ohio, using different filters.

See more below, plus the Solar Dynamics Observatory has a spectacular video of coronal loops on the Sun during January 5 through 7.


The video shows the 171 angstroms channel, which is especially good at showing coronal loops – the arcs extending off of the Sun where plasma moves along the magnetic field lines, said the SDO team. The brightest spots seen here are locations where the magnetic field near the surface is exceptionally strong. The characteristic temperature here is 1 million K (or 1.8 million F).

Many of these loops could fit several Earths inside of them.

Different views from different filters from John Chumack:

The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
The Sun in H-Alpha, on 01-07-2013, using a Lunt Solar LS60Scope/LS50 Hydrogen Alpha Solar filter. Credit: John Chumack
The Sun on 1/07/13 as seen using a White Light Glass filter. Credit: John Chumack
The Sun on 1/07/13 as seen using a White Light Glass filter. Credit: John Chumack

See more of John’s work at his website, Galactic Images, or his Flickr page.

Spectacular Filament Eruption on the Sun Captured by SDO

Yikes! Not to be outdone by the Blue Moon, the Sun had some impressive action on August 31, 2012 as well. A solar filament collapsed and and exploded, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory caught the action in dramatic detail. The view in extreme ultraviolet light is simply jaw-dropping! The segment in the 304 angstroms wavelength (where the Sun looks red) covers almost 3 hours of elapsed time.

The SDO team says that long filaments like this one have been known to collapse with explosive results when they hit the stellar surface below. According to SpaceWeather.com, the CME propelled by the blast might deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field in the days ahead.

The image above includes an image of Earth to show the size of the CME compared to the size of Earth. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

Screen grab from the video showing the view in extreme ultraviolet light. Credit: SDO

See more at SDO’s website and You Tube site.

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.

SDO’s Crazy-Looking Sun Due to Syzygy

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It looks like something is eating the Sun in recent pictures from the Solar Dynamics Observatory — and in recent SDO videos, the Sun suddenly disappears! What is going on? Could it be aliens, Planet X, or the Great Galactic Ghoul? Nope, just orbital mechanics and syzygy (an alignment of three celestial objects). At this time of year the Sun, Earth, and the SDO spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit line up, creating syzygencially spectacular Sun-Earth eclipses. The folks from SDO explain it this way:

“Twice a year, SDO enters an eclipse season where the spacecraft slips behind Earth for up to 72 minutes a day. Unlike the crisp shadow one sees on the sun during a lunar eclipse, Earth’s shadow has a variegated edge due to its atmosphere, which blocks the sun light to different degrees depending on its density. Also, light from brighter spots on the sun may make it through, which is why some solar features extend low into Earth’s shadow.”

This video shows how the alignment works:

Here’s a sped-up video of what SDO sees from space:

See more at SDO’s You Tube page, and the SDO website

SDO Captures a Monster Solar Prominence

The Sun continues to be active! A large-sized (M 3.6 class) flare occurred near the edge of the Sun on February 24, 2011, and it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted over a 90-minute period. This event was captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. Some of the material blew out into space and other portions fell back to the surface. Because SDO images are super-HD, the scienctists can zoom in on the action and still see exquisite details. The video above was created using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds; still, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless. Sit back and enjoy the jaw-dropping solar show. See one of the images, below.

Spaceweather.com reports that Earth was little affected by this blast, as plasma clouds produced by the blast did not come our way.

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The latest active sunspot — #1163 — is currently behind the Sun’s eastern limb, but be turning toward Earth in the days ahead, setting the stage for more activity if the eruptions continue.

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

SDO Provides Constant, Unprecedented Views of Sun’s Inner Corona

Cosmic Radiation

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Usually the only time we can see the innermost part of the Sun’s corona is when there is a total eclipse. But now, with the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and a new image processing program, scientists are getting unprecedented views of the innermost corona 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“The AIA solar images, with better-than-HD quality views, show magnetic structures and dynamics that we’ve never seen before on the Sun,” said astronomer Steven Cranmer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “This is a whole new area of study that’s just beginning.”

The Sun’s outer layer, or corona is composed of light, gaseous matter, and has two parts. The outer corona is white, with streamers extending out millions of miles from the edge of the sun. The inner corona, lying next to the red chromosphere, is a band of pale yellow.

This zoomed-in image shows how the Sun's magnetic field shapes hot coronal plasma. Photos like this highlight the ever-changing connections between gas captured by the Sun's magnetic field and gas escaping into interplanetary space. Credit: NASA/LMSAL/SAO

This outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere is, paradoxically, hotter than the Sun’s surface, but so tenuous that its light is overwhelmed by the much brighter solar disk. The corona becomes visible only when the Sun is blocked, which happens for just a few minutes during an eclipse.

Now, with AIA, “we can follow the corona all the way down to the Sun’s surface,” said Leon Golub of the CfA.

Previously, solar astronomers could observe the corona by physically blocking the solar disk with a coronagraph, much like holding your hand in front of your face while driving into the setting Sun. However, a coronagraph also blocks the area immediately surrounding the Sun, leaving only the outer corona visible.

The AIA instrument on SDO allows astronomers to study the corona all the way down to the Sun’s surface.
Cranmer and CfA colleague Alec Engell developed a computer program for processing the AIA images above the Sun’s edge. These processed images imitate the blocking-out of the Sun that occurs during a total solar eclipse, revealing the highly dynamic nature of the inner corona. They will be used to study the initial eruption phase of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) as they leave the Sun and to test theories of solar wind acceleration based on magnetic reconnection.

The resulting images highlight the ever-changing connections between gas captured by the Sun’s magnetic field and gas escaping into interplanetary space.

This time-lapse movie shows two days of solar activity observed by the AIA instrument. Both the solar surface and dynamic inner corona are clearly visible in X-rays. Hot solar plasma streams outward in vast loops larger than Earth before plunging back onto the Sun’s surface. Some of the loops expand and stretch bigger and bigger until they break, belching plasma outward.

SDO launched in February 2010.

This video provides more information about the AIA instrument:

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

Spacecraft Calibrations Provide Unique Solar “Artwork”

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If you check out the Solar Dynamics Observatory website today to get an update of what the Sun is doing, (which you should -everyday!) you may have noticed a few of the daily images appeared to be “sliding” across the screen. That’s because yesterday the team from the AIA instrument (Atmospheric Imaging Assembly) performed several instrument calibration maneuvers, in which the AIA boresight was moved away from the center of the Sun. When the images are re-centered some of them have lines to the edges of the picture, creating some very nifty solar artwork. Enjoy them now, as this effect will only show up in the “rapid” images shown on their website, and later, they’ll be corrected in the science database. See more below.

More SDO artwork.

SDO takes images of the Sun in several different wavelengths, which highlights different features. On SDO’s Facebook page, the team wrote, “It appears that the re-centering of the images is copying the value at the edge of the field of view rather than zero while the image is being shifted to the center of the picture.”

And even though the images will be fixed, they won’t be able to fix them completely. The information that is missing from images can’t be recovered because the instrument wasn’t pointed at the Sun at the time the image was taken.

More SDO artwork.