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Goddard Year In Review: Heliophysics
12.12.11
 
These stories, images and videos represent some of the 2011 highlights in the field of heliophysics, the study of the sun and its interactions with Earth and other bodies. All the content showcased here bears some connection to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Many of the highlights featured here come from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which celebrated its first anniversary in April. (Credit: Scott Wiessinger, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Hotspots in Solar Fountains Help Explain Coronal Heating Mystery (01.06.11)

Among the many constantly moving, appearing, disappearing and generally explosive events in the sun's atmosphere, there exist giant plumes of gas that zoom up from the sun's surface at 150,000 miles per hour. Known as spicules, these are among several phenomena known to transfer energy and heat throughout the sun's magnetic atmosphere, or corona. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Japanese satellite Hinode have imaged and measured these spicules better than ever before, showing them to contain hotter gas than previously observed. Thus, they may perhaps play a key role in helping to heat the sun's corona to a staggering million degrees or more. (A number made more surprising since the sun's surface itself is only about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.)

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SDO image of the sun

Latest image of the far side of the Sun based on high resolution STEREO data, taken on February 2, 2011 at 23:56 UT.

First Ever STEREO Images of the Entire Sun (02.06.11)

On February 6, NASA's twin STEREO probes moved into position on opposite sides of the sun, giving them the perfect placement to send back uninterrupted images of our entire star -- front and back. NOAA is already using 3D STEREO models of CMEs (billion-ton clouds of plasma ejected by the sun) to improve space weather forecasts for airlines, power companies, satellite operators, and other customers. The full sun view should improve those forecasts even more.

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› Stonehenge to STEREO: How We See the Sun (related video)


When a rather large M 3.6 class flare occurred near the edge of the Sun on Feb. 24, 2011, it blew out a gorgeous, waving mass of erupting plasma that swirled and twisted for 90 minutes. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the event in extreme ultraviolet light. Because SDO images are high definition, the SDO team was able to zoom in on the flare and still see exquisite details. And using a cadence of a frame taken every 24 seconds, the sense of motion is, by all appearances, seamless.
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› Related story: Sun Unleashes X6.9 Class Flare (08.09.11)

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory Catches "Surfer" Waves on the Sun (06.07.11)

Cue the beach music! Scientists have spotted the "surfer waves" rolling on the sun. Catching these waves gives scientists far more than just a good photo-op. These waves hold clues to how energy moves through the sun's atmosphere, known as the corona, which is still something of a mystery.

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On the left is the entire Sun as viewed by SDO in 193 Angstrom with area of interest highlighted. On the right are seven zoom-ins of the highlighted area in 2 minute intervals showing the formation of K-H waves in the solar corona.

The sun unleashed an M-2 (medium-sized) solar flare with a spectacular coronal mass ejection (CME) on June 7, 2011. The large cloud of particles mushroomed up and fell back down looking as if it covered an area of almost half the solar surface.
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› Zoom-in video
› Related story: Six CMEs in 24 Hours (09.20.11)

Screen capture from simulation of ARTEMIS P1 spacecraft entering lunar orbit.

ARTEMIS Spacecraft Successfully Enter Lunar Orbit (07.17.11)

The two ARTEMIS spacecraft began their lives as part of a satellite fleet studying Earth's aurorae. Commonly known as the northern and southern lights, these phenomena are caused by particles in the solar wind interacting with Earth's magnetic field. After two years on their original mission, NASA undertook some never-before-attempted maneuvering to send the ARTEMIS satellites to the moon. The complex journey (relying on tricky orbital changes and gravity interactions) took two years, but both satellites arrived this summer. They are now in an ideal spot to study magnetism some distance from the moon. In this position, they could spot how the solar wind -- made up of ionized gas known as plasma -- interacts with the moon.

› ARTEMIS Spacecraft Prepare for Lunar Orbit
› First ARTEMIS Spacecraft Arrives
› Second ARTEMIS Spacecraft Arrives

Something New On the Sun: SDO Spots a Late Phase in Solar Flares (09.07.11)

Analysis of 191 solar flares since May 2010 shows that some 15 percent have a distinct "late phase flare" minutes to hours following the main event. This late phase of the flare -- never before fully observed -- pumps much more energy out into space than previously realized. "In one case on November 3, 2010, measuring only the effects of the main flare would mean underestimating the amount of energy shooting into Earth's atmosphere by 70 percent," says Phil Chamberlin, deputy project scientist for SDO. Mapping these patterns could help scientists predict the onset of space weather that bursts toward Earth from the sun, interfering with communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) signals.

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A still from the video shows a compilation of solar data from various instruments on SDO recording a flare on May 5, 2010.

These images and video clips showcase observations from some of NASA's sun-observing spacecraft.