Year Three: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Mission Highlights |
On Feb. 11, 2010, NASA launched an unprecedented solar observatory into space. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) flew up on an Atlas V rocket, carrying instruments that scientists hoped would revolutionize observations of the sun. If all went according to plan, SDO would provide incredibly high-resolution data of the entire solar disk almost as quickly as once a second.
When the science team released its first images in April of 2010, SDO’s data exceeded everyone’s hopes and expectations, providing stunningly detailed views of the sun. In the three years since then, SDO’s images have continued to show breathtaking pictures and movies of eruptive events on the sun. Such imagery is more than just pretty, they are the very data that scientists study. By highlighting different wavelengths of light, scientists can track how material on the sun moves. Such movement, in turn, holds clues as to what causes these giant explosions, which, when Earth-directed, can disrupt technology in space.
In its third year of observations, however, SDO has also opened up several new, unexpected doors to scientific inquiry. Over the last year scientists spent much time poring over data from comet observations. Comets that travel close to the sun — known as sun-grazers — have long been observed as they move toward the sun, but the view was always obscured by the sun’s bright light when the comets got too close. But SDO has now captured images of two comets as they passed close to the sun.