A new sun-studying satellite had its coming-out party Wednesday, when scientists involved in the project presented early imagery and videos from the spacecraft's instruments at a news conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, launched by NASA in February, gathers a voluminous stream of data about the star nearest Earth, observations that should help heliophysicists better understand the workings of the sun and improve forecasts of solar activity that can cause problems on Earth.
"We are all living in the atmosphere of a star, and that's our sun," explained Richard Fisher, director of NASA's heliophysics division. That atmosphere can be a bit turbulent—streams of charged particles and blasts of radiation can disrupt satellites and pose health hazards to astronauts in orbit. Stanford University's Philip Scherrer, principal investigator for SDO's Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, noted that large solar storms can even knock out power grids on Earth.
Fisher said that SDO could do for heliophysics what the Hubble Space Telescope has done for astrophysics in general. A suite of instruments on SDO returns 16-megapixel images of the sun on a nearly continuous basis, splits the sun's emissions into its individual wavelengths, tracks the propagation of waves across the sun's surface and maps the ever-shifting solar magnetic field. With all that information, scientists can not only observe solar flares and other activity in stunning detail (see the video below for SDO's view of a looping solar prominence; more images and videos are available from NASA's Web site) but also get a glimpse of the interior workings of the sun that give rise to such events.
Much of that data—especially the videos of solar flares and other explosive outbursts—are pretty visually arresting, a fact that appears not to be lost on SDO's operators. At the Newseum event, NASA astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta said that an app was in the works to bring SDO images and movies to Apple's iPad.