Glorious images of the Sun, from NASA

July 3, 2014

Who’d have thought of such an image, before we used satellites to look?

NASA SDO images of the Sun

From NASA: Image info: This combination of three wavelengths of light from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows one of the multiple jets that led to a series of slow coronal puffs on January 17, 2013. The light has been colorized in red, green and blue. Credit: NASA SDO

NASA’s press release, from June 27, 2014:

A suite of NASA’s Sun-gazing spacecraft have spotted an unusual series of eruptions in which a series of fast puffs forced the slow ejection of a massive burst of solar material from the Sun’s atmosphere. The eruptions took place over a period of three days, starting on Jan. 17, 2013. Nathalia Alzate, a solar scientist at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, presented findings on what caused the puffs at the 2014 Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth, England.

The sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona, is made of magnetized solar material, called plasma, that has a temperature of millions of degrees and extends millions of miles into space. On January 17, the joint European Space Agency and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, spacecraft observed puffs emanating from the base of the corona and rapidly exploding outwards into interplanetary space. The puffs occurred roughly once every three hours. After about 12 hours, a much larger eruption of material began, apparently eased out by the smaller-scale explosions.

By looking at high-resolution images taken by NASA’s NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (Little SDO), or SDO, and NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, over the same time period and in different wavelengths, Alzate and her colleagues could focus on the cause of the puffs and the interaction between the small and large-scale eruptions.

“Looking at the corona in extreme ultraviolet light we see the source of the puffs is a series of energetic jets and related flares,” said Alzate. “The jets are localized, catastrophic releases of energy that spew material out from the sun into space. These rapid changes in the magnetic field cause flares, which release a huge amount of energy in a very short time in the form of super-heated plasma, high-energy radiation and radio bursts. The big, slow structure is reluctant to erupt, and does not begin to smoothly propagate outwards until several jets have occurred.”

Because the events were observed by multiple spacecraft, each viewing the sun from a different perspective, Alzate and her colleagues were able to resolve the three-dimensional configuration of the eruptions. This allowed them to estimate the forces acting on the slow eruption and discuss possible mechanisms for the interaction between the slow and fast phenomena.

“We still need to understand whether there are shock waves, formed by the jets, passing through and driving the slow eruption,” said Alzate. “Or whether magnetic reconfiguration is driving the jets allowing the larger, slow structure to slowly erupt. Thanks to recent advances in observation and in image processing techniques we can throw light on the way jets can lead to small and fast, or large and slow, eruptions from the Sun.”

Van Gogh painted rather unusual images of the Sun and stars; Turner painted perhaps more life-like images.   There are many interesting views of the Sun in art, by Monet, and many, many others.

Vincent van Gogh,

Vincent van Gogh, “Sower with the Setting Sun”

But who conceived of any image like this one from NASA, above?

What private entity could ever do that?  

J. M. W. Turner,

J. M. W. Turner, “Caernarvon Castle,” 1799

Claude Monet,

Claude Monet, “Impression Sunrise”

British biologist J. B. S. Haldane said:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

♦   Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286

Haldane may as well have added, the universe is not only more beautiful that we imagine, but more beautiful than we can imagine.  Reality trumps fiction yet again.

Gradient Sun, NASA video for classroom use

October 21, 2012

Real science often is more fantastic that the stuff people make up. Haldane was right.

Still shot from NASA solar gradient video

Not the Sun you’re used to seeing.

In a century our studies of the Sun progressed from the deep calculations based on erroneous assumptions of what our star is make of  (Lord Kelvin‘s calculations on how long the iron in the Sun would take to cool to its present color), to today’s solar studies, in which nearly every moment of the Sun’s life is recorded through a half dozen different sensors, by satellites and telescopes and whatever other means we have to capture data from the Sun’s burning.

It’s hard science — but it borders on art, too, doesn’t it?  Watch this:

Gradient Sun [HD Video], originally uploaded by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

What’s going on here?

Via Flickr:

Watching a particularly beautiful movie of the sun helps show how the lines between science and art can sometimes blur. But there is more to the connection between the two disciplines: science and art techniques are often quite similar, indeed one may inform the other or be improved based on lessons from the other arena. One such case is a technique known as a “gradient filter” – recognizable to many people as an option available on a photo-editing program. Gradients are, in fact, a mathematical description that highlights the places of greatest physical change in space. A gradient filter, in turn, enhances places of contrast, making them all the more obviously different, a useful tool when adjusting photos. Scientists, too, use gradient filters to enhance contrast, using them to accentuate fine structures that might otherwise be lost in the background noise. On the sun, for example, scientists wish to study a phenomenon known as coronal loops, which are giant arcs of solar material constrained to travel along that particular path by the magnetic fields in the sun’s atmosphere. Observations of the loops, which can be more or less tangled and complex during different phases of the sun’s 11-year activity cycle, can help researchers understand what’s happening with the sun’s complex magnetic fields, fields that can also power great eruptions on the sun such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections.

The images here show an unfiltered image from the sun next to one that has been processed using a gradient filter. Note how the coronal loops are sharp and defined, making them all the more easy to study. On the other hand, gradients also make great art. Watch the movie to see how the sharp loops on the sun next to the more fuzzy areas in the lower solar atmosphere provide a dazzling show.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

To download this video go to:

NASA image use policy.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.

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Teachers ought to figure out how to use this in classrooms — and I don’t mean astronomy, physics and chemistry only.  Can you find a use for this film in geography?  History? English and literature?

Sometime shortly after World War II scientists captured film of a mass coronal ejection from the Sun.  You probably can imagine the film I’m remembering.  That snippet found its way into films students saw in science, geography, chemistry, biology (“this is our Sun, from which all living things get energy, through photosynthesis”), and probably a half dozen other subjects.  It was spectacular, and it was just about all that was available for classroom use, then.  Students now probably have never seen it.  Worse, my experience is that students in high school generally have very little familiarity with the science projects carried out by agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation, and they know very little about the Sun, or the Moon and other planets.

Teachers, the state isn’t going to help you put this into your classrooms.  Can you figure out some way to get it in?


Cool solar flare this week

June 9, 2011

Old Sol spoke out this week:  Huge solar flare on June 7.

For scientists, it was a cool deal — especially since the flair was on the side of the Sun facing us, and there were cameras of various types trained on the action.

But just watch:  The internet will light up with concerns about 2012, and those who deny warming occurs or that humans cause it, will find some reason to claim the solar flare shows that Al Gore is fat and Rachel Carson is a mass murderer, plus Darwin was the inspiration for Adolf Hitler.

If the Sun knew it would get such a reception, would it bother?

Take a look:

June 7, 2011 solar flare -- NASA/SDO

Still shot of the June 7, 2011 solar flare -- NASA/SDO via PopSci

Here’s a pixillated video of the event in UV at 304 Angstroms — it runs under 30 seconds, but the time covered is about two-and-a-half hours; from SOHO – SDO via

Another view, again UV, but at 171 Angstroms:

Tip of the old scrub brush to PopSci.


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