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August 17, 2009

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- Glenn Bock - Emilie Drobnes

How is NASA planning to get fantastic, comprehensive images of the Sun without damage to the agency cornea? Quite simply, the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO.) Jammed with high tech instruments such as the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA,) EUV Variability Experiment (EVE) and the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI,) SDO will provide over a terabyte of solar data every day. Chris goes over the scientific details with Glenn Bock, while Emilie Drobnes and Camilla help Blair learn to ‘Live with a Star.’

CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA. We’re here…

CHRIS: What are you doing? We’re here with Emily, Glenn & Camilla. Emily, who’s Camilla?

EMILIE: Camilla is SDO’s BFF. If you want to find out more about how they became best friends, friend little SDO on Facebook.

CHRIS: SDO is a very cool satellite called Solar Dynamics Observatory. Glenn and Emily are going to give us a sneak peak.

BLAIR: You didn’t talk about how Camilla is a range free chicken.

GLENN: Solar Dynamics Observatory, this is a spacecraft that is going to go in orbit around the earth, look at the Sun 24 hours a day, seven days a week and beam down all sorts of pretty pictures of the Sun.

CHRIS: Glenn, my understanding is that SDO is part of the “Living With A Star” program which is going to be a series of satellites studying the Sun.

GLENN: Yes, we’ve got several satellites looking directly at the Sun as well as looking at the magnetosphere of the earth. This one has a dedicated ground system. We have two antennas that are dedicated in the desert southwest that are just designed to absorb the data from this mission here. It’s going to be dedicated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, pulling down the data through the dedicated antennas. We’re going to combine this data with SOHO and ACE to try and get a better understanding of the charged particles coming from the Sun. The UV, the x rays. We’re in a period of time where there’s not a lot of Sunspot activity. We’ve gone almost 100 days without any significant Sunspots. The last time that happened was before the 50’s. We’re hoping to try and understand as the Sunspot activity increases over the next 7 to10 years how that affects the way the Sun does its thing and how it dissipates energy to the earth.

CHRIS: There are three instruments on board. What are they?

GLENN: We’ve got HMI, AIA, and EVE. Each one of them looks at a different part of the Sun, different wavelength of the Sun, different depth of the Sun. One of them even looks at the ripples on the Sun to see the magnetic characteristics of the Sun.

CHRIS: So what you’re saying is for the first time ever we might actually take an ultrasound of the Sun?

GLENN: Yeah. We’re actually going to look at the ripples coming off of the Sun and give you a feel for what’s going on the far side and see how the acoustic waves travel around the Sun and maybe get some insight from those and what’s going on deeper inside the Sun.

BLAIR: SDO is going on a 5-year mission to boldly go where no other Solar Dynamic Observatory has ever been before. What does that mission entail?

EMILIE: The mission has three instruments. They’re looking basically at the Sun and get much more detailed images to be able to tell the whole story of the Sun or at least give us much more detail of how it’s working, how it’s changing over time but in a way we’ve never done before.

BLAIR: For the average person, what does that mean? Why do I need to know more about the Sun? I know why I need to know more about the Sun being a medianaut.

EMILIE: You want to know how it’s changing, how it’s working, how it’s affecting us here on Earth as well. As we twitter, as we use Facebook, as we use our computers, our cell phones…


EMILIE: GPS, you want to know how to get from point A to point B. You want the satellites to know where your location is. All of the technology we are dependent upon is affected by what happens on the Sun.

BLAIR: Right. You bring up a very good point. That would be magnetospherence. As things happen on the Sun and cause interference on earth, we need to be prepared. We need to know how to handle that.

EMILIE: The way I describe it is up till now we had instruments that were taking images every 10 minutes. This one is going to be taking them much faster. If you have a bunch of people in the room dancing, the light goes on every 10 minutes. You’re trying to figure out what dance they’re doing. Every 10 minutes, you can’t tell. But if you’re switching the light every 10 seconds, suddenly you’re like, “Oh the Macarena.”

BLAIR: And not to mention the safety factor.

CHRIS: One of the cool things I read up about the SDO is that for the first time the pictures we’re going to see will be better than HD, almost Imax quality.

GLENN: We’re going to be 10 times greater than high-definition. We’re going to be bringing those pictures down every two seconds. We’re going to get full discs of the Sun in many different wavelengths. We’re going to be able to put those together to make really good movies but also see on a fine scale what actually is going on near Sunspots and in areas where there aren’t any Sunspots. We’ll get a lot of activity that we’re going to be able to watch with this.

CHRIS: This is going to be greater than HD. You will be sending down one and a half terabytes of data per day. You’re talking about a 5-year plus mission. Where are you going to store all that data?

GLENN: This spacecraft has no capability to record the science data onboard. It is going to bring the data in, take the pictures, and send the data down through those antennas down to the ground. They’re going to be recorded on the ground with raids and raids and raids of hard drives in New Mexico. People will be able to download this data hopefully minutes after it comes down in thumbnail form, and then the data will be processed so it makes a little more sense and is more distributable.

BLAIR: You talk about this “Life With a Star?”

EMILIE: “Living With A Star.”

BLAIR: “Living With A Star.” How is that categorically different than say my so-called Life With A Star or Dancing With A Star or How To Win a Date With a Star? How is that different?

EMILIE: This one you can’t touch. If you get too close, it’s not pretty.

BLAIR: I think that’s true in the other case too. There’s legal action that takes place.

EMILIE: Dancing, there’s always the dip. This one you do the dip, you’re not coming back from the dip. This idea that it’s our closest star, it’s an average star compared to every other star.

BLAIR: That’s a little insensitive, an average star. It’s an above average star. It’s a very idealistic star, a very happy star. I wouldn’t marginalize it like that.

EMILIE: Yeah… No it really contents itself with being average.

BLAIR: We’re in an average solar system.

EMILIE: You know what that’s like, right?


GLENN: This is the first spacecraft that has carbon graphite antennas on it. They’re going to be exposed to the Sun 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s also one of the first NASA missions that is running with lithium ion batteries. The ones that most people are familiar with in their laptops that make the laptops lighter than they were back when it was nickel cadmium. We’ve got about 800 of those inside of here to power it. Although it is a Sun mission, we will be going to eclipse occasionally and we’ll need to rely on that battery to survive up to 72 minutes, but normally about 22-minute eclipses twice a year. The way that the Sun interacts with the magnetosphere and the way the charged particles come in, we don’t really understand a whole lot of that. This, along with the MSS mission which is being built here at Goddard, will be looking at how the charged particles from the Sun will interact with the tail and what we call disconnect events that happen in the magnetosphere around the earth. All that data with being able to find out what’s going on the Sun 2-3 days earlier will really give us a better understanding of the entire system.

EMILIE: The basic idea is we’ve been building models through the information we’ve gotten from past satellites. SDO is going to give us the data to prove if those models are right. As we perfect the models over time and with new satellites, we’ll be able to better understand what’s happening and make predictions and find if those predictions are accurate, like when you’re doing weather. For a long time we tried to predict if it was going to be a rainy day. Most of us when the weather guy said it’s going to rain, we knew it wasn’t going to rain. We knew it’s not going to happen today. We’re trying to make these predictions better. So when we have to reroute airlines and shut down spacecrafts, you’re not just doing it on a whim. You want to know that when someone tells you there’s going to be a storm that there is going to be a storm, so that you can react accordingly.

BLAIR: Is that predictability? Is this kind of information going to give us clarity or more long-term predictability?

EMILIE: Probably both over time. The idea that at first we just need to predict on a day-to-day basis what’s going to happen. As we get much better at prediction, we’ll be able to predict long-term. The long-term prediction is what we want, but we can’t do that until we get the details right. So as we get the details, we’ll be able to do long-term predictions.

BLAIR: And as I understand, we’re getting 1.5 terabytes a day of detail with SDO.

EMILIE: Yeah, it’s about a half million songs downloaded from iTunes every day.

BLAIR: You can’t ask more than that from little SDO.

CHRIS: Glenn, thank you very much for giving us a sneak peak of SDO.

GLENN: Thanks for coming out and seeing it.

CHRIS: Good luck with the launch later this year. We’ll be looking forward to the data.

BLAIR: Awesome! You’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA.

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