NASA Launches Solar Dynamics Observatory

 
 
By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2010-02-11
 
 
 

In hopes of better predicting solar storms that "can wreak havoc on power grids, communications systems and delicate satellites," NASA Feb. 11 launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a satellite that will relay massive amounts of solar data back to Earth.

The data "is expected to reveal the sun's inner workings by constantly taking high-resolution images of the sun, collecting readings from inside the sun and measuring its magnetic field activity," NASA said. Researchers hope the data will eventually lead to predicting solar activity that "can affect spacecraft in orbit, astronauts on the International Space Station and electronic and other systems on Earth."

The SDO successfully lifted off at 10:23 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida's Atlantic Coast. NASA said, "The SDO spacecraft is in good shape midway through the launch phase that will eventually place it in an elongated orbit reaching more than 21,000 miles high. Eventually, SDO's orbit will be circularized and will reach about 22,300 miles in what is called geosynchronous orbit."

"The biggest challenge of this mission was the data rate," said Liz Citrin, SDO project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "SDO will blast back 1.5TB of information every day ... that's equivalent to a half-million song downloads. It's unprecedented."

According to Citrin, it is impossible "to record that much data on board the spacecraft. Instead, the SDO team designed a mammoth 18-meter radio antenna, as well as a back-up, at White Sands Space Harbor in Las Cruces, N.M., to receive it all. [From there] ... the data will be sent out to scientists at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., the University of Colorado at Boulder and Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysics Lab in Colorado."

NASA explained:

"SDO has three major instruments on board that will send data back for at least five years, hopefully 10.

Both the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, or HMI, and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, or AIA, will allow scientists to see the entire disc of the sun in very high resolution-4,096 by 4,096 [millimeter] CCDs. In comparison, a standard digital camera uses a 7.176 by 5.329 mm CCD sensor.

AIA also will image the outer layer of the sun's atmosphere, while the Extreme ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE, measures its ultraviolet spectrum every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day.

HMI will map the helioseismic and magnetic fields of the sun to understand its interior and magnetic activity."

"Space weather forecasting is in its infancy ... just like hurricane forecasting was years ago. We built up experience in collecting data, designed models, tested those models and now look what we can do," Citrin said. "SDO and all of NASA's Living with a Star Program missions will lead to better prediction of space weather."

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