Sun is seen in a whole new light

Superbowl Sunday became Superball Sun day when NASA released astonishing 3D images of our home star as never seen before. Twin spaceprobes moved into position on opposite sides of the Sun to give scientists their first ever complete views of its surface.

Far side of Sun days before satellites reached final position (NASA)

The achievement will give a huge boost to the forecasting of space weather – coronal mass ejections that throw out billion-ton clouds of hot gas that might wreck satellite communications such as satnav.

It means astronomers will be able to monitor flares and explosions on the whole Sun and spot the storms that could also knock out power grids on Earth for months or years.

In particular, they will be able to watch the far side of the Sun and monitor features such as sunspots when they are invisible to instruments on Earth.

The identical probes, known as Stereo, have been steadily travelling across space since they were launched in 2006 to take up their positions as solar sentinels. The pictures they send home can now be combined to produce spectacular movies of the sun rotating.

Angelos Vourlidas, of the STEREO science team said yesterday: “For the first time ever, we can watch solar activity in its full 3-dimensional glory. This is a big moment in solar physics. STEREO has revealed the Sun as it really is – a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields.”

Each STEREO probe photographs half of the star and beams the images to Earth. Researchers combine the two views to create a sphere. The telescopes are tuned to four wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation that can trace key aspects of solar activity such as flares, tsunamis and magnetic filaments.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!

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