NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which launched in 2010, recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. To celebrate, NASA cut together a stunning time-lapsed video showcasing the amazing vistas the SDO probe has captured to date. The SDO probe was designed to measure the structure and creation of the sun’s magnetic field, as well as to investigate how changes within the sun impact the Earth.
The probe contains a number of scientific instruments, including tools for measuring extreme ultraviolet radiation, a Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI), and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, built by Lockheed Martin, which provides “continuous full-disk observations of the solar chromosphere and corna” in seven extreme ultraviolet channels. The SDO generates a reported 1.5TB of data per day, and has a 130Mbit linkage with Earth.
The new video compresses five years of observations into a few short minutes, but includes beautiful features from the various frequency bands and imaging equipment. We tend to think of the sun as static — so much so, that many cultures refer to it as an example of an object or event that does not change but continues in its course day after day, century after century. Because relatively few solar events actually cause a change in the naked-eye appearance of the sun or even result in unusual disturbances to Earth’s magnetic field, it’s easy to imagine that the sun is a unified, unchanging ball of fire.
Videos like this reveal that nothing could be further from the truth. One of the purposes of launching the SDO was to build a platform that could image the sun much more quickly than previous tools; the SDO captures data every 12 seconds, as opposed to once a minute. In 2014, this allowed researchers to observe how a process called slipping reconnection, in which magnetic field lines disconnect and reconnect, can generate some of the sun’s most massive solar flares. This activity had been theorized before, but not captured on film.
The other practical benefit of satellites like the SDO is that they capture solar flares in action and could theoretically give us advance warning before a major flare struck Earth. While the chances of a crippling flare are low in absolute terms, the consequences of being hit by another 1859 Carrington Event could be absolutely catastrophic.
The observations made by the SDO could one day lead to better mathematical models that allow us to predict where such mega-flares are likely to form and how much danger they pose to Earth. The probe’s primary mission was scheduled for five years and three months, but it should be able to operate for up to ten years, assuming no equipment failures or other issues.
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