New Solar Satellite Delivers First Images


On April 21, 2010, NASA released the first collection of images taken by its newest solar spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Launched on February 11, SDO has already captured two significant events—a prominence and a solar flare—in unprecedented detail at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

A full-disk multiwavelength extreme ultraviolet image of the sun taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. 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/Goddard/SDO AIA Team

Even though you’ve been told never to gaze directly at the Sun, the SDO satellite allows researchers to do just that, at a resolution and with coverage never before achieved. With an array of four telescopes called the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA), which observe at different wavelengths, SDO constantly monitors the Sun’s corona by taking one image every 10 seconds. Astronomers will use these images, along with data from other instruments onboard the satellite, to better understand the dynamics of solar activity and apply that knowledge to other star systems across the Universe.


During solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other eruptive events, the Sun ejects charged particles into the Solar System. As these particles near Earth, they can interact with Earth’s magnetic field and trigger space weather. Typically, space weather manifests itself as colorful auroras near the poles, but it can also disrupt radio communications and global positioning systems (GPS) on Earth. By using SDO to examine how eruptive events evolve, astronomers should be better able to predict space weather and help people prepare.

SDO’s work has just begun. Preliminary image collection began on March 30, and the mission is expected to run until 2015. SDO’s first crop of high-resolution images already gives an indication of the beautiful and valuable data still to come.