New Space Telescope to Target Sun Storms
An artist's illustration of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, set to launch Feb. 9 to observe the sun.
Credit: NASA/Goddard

While astronomers gaze at stars farther and farther out in the heavens, some scientists want to take a closer look at the star closest to us: the sun.

NASA plans to launch a new spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), to take the most detailed observations ever of the sun to understand its complex weather and storms.

"The sun changes every time we look at it, [it] is never the same," said Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in a Thursday briefing.

Scientists hope data from the new probe will help them understand changes in the sun's magnetic field, which gets more and less active on an 11-year cycle, sending out periodic flares of charged particles that can disrupt technology on Earth.

The $808 million spacecraft is slated to launch Feb. 9 at 10:36 a.m. EST (1536 GMT) atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

For the most part, Earth is protected from these charged particles, called the solar wind, by its own magnetic field, which repels them. But during a solar storm, some of that onslaught can get through to the ground, causing disruptions to satellite navigation systems, radio communications, energy grids and other systems.

"Our sun affects our life more and more as we come to depend more and more on technology," Pesnell said.

Data from SDO should help to better predict solar flares to avoid the worst of the damage. This will be particularly important when humans begin to journey back to the moon and on to Mars, where there will be no magnetic cocoon to protect them and their spacecraft.?

The observatory contains three instruments that will take photographs of the sun in eight wavelengths of light every 10 seconds. The data will be used to study the process that generates the sun's magnetic field, called the solar dynamo.

"Understanding the dynamo, being able to predict that is the holy grail of solar physics," said Madhulika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

After it reaches orbit around Earth, SDO will undergo tests, and will likely be able to send back its first scientific data about 60 days after launch. The scientists who have been guiding the project since its inception said they expect that over its five-year mission, SDO will revolutionize our understanding of solar physics.

"This is my baby, and it's very hard for me to push it out on its own," said Elizabeth Citrin, SDO project manager at Goddard. "I am proud, I know it's going to perform, I know it's just going to be wonderful."

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