NASA’s new eye on the sun delivers stunning images

NASA’s recently launched Solar Dynamics Observatory is returning early images that confirm an unprecedented new capability for scientists to better understand our sun’s dynamic processes. Some of the images from the spacecraft show never-before-seen detail of material streaming outward and away from sunspots. Others show extreme close-ups of activity on the sun’s surface. The spacecraft also has made the first high-resolution measurements of solar flares in a broad range of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. sun, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Image right: In this photograph of the sun taken by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on March 30, 2010, the color red shows emission from ionized helium at a temperature of 140,000 Fahrenheit, while green shows ionized iron at a temperature of 1,800,000 F. Credit: NASA.

Launched on Feb. 11, 2010, the observatory is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun. During its five-year mission, it will examine the sun’s magnetic field and also provide a better understanding of the role the sun plays in Earth’s atmospheric chemistry and climate.

The observatory carries three state-of the-art instruments for conducting solar research: the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment, and the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager. These three instruments observe the sun simultaneously, performing the entire range of measurements necessary to understand solar variations. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is a major partner in the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, which is a group of four telescopes that photograph the sun in 10 different wavelength bands, or colors, once every 10 seconds. Its images will help astronomers link changes in the sun’s surface to interior changes. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory built the four telescope assemblies and participates as a full partner in the scientific analysis activities.

This movie of the March 30, 2010 prominence eruption of the sun, starting with a zoomed in view, was taken by the new Solar Dynamics Observatory. (Video courtesy NASA)

“Everything about the AIA images is cleaner and better than anything we’ve had before. The mirrors are better, the cameras are better and the amount of data available is better. It all combines to give us a view of the corona that we’ve never had before,” said Smithsonian astrophysicist Leon Golub, a co-investigator on the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly.

 SDO is the first mission of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, or LWS, and the crown jewel in a fleet of NASA missions that study our sun and space environment. The goal of LWS is to develop the scientific understanding necessary to address those aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect our lives and society.



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  • Bruce Daniels

    Does the sun have a cycle of solar flares? Are they related to any interference of communication on earth or from the satellites? Where are we in the Solar flare cycle and is it more intense than ususal?

  • Kim Arcand

    You can see a large format version of the SDO image (shown at the top of this page) in person at the National Air & Space Museum through September 23rd. It’s part of the Aesthetics of Astronomy exhibit in the main gallery.


  • Ron

    Nice quality images and video. The Sun is quite interesting especially seeing it up close. Very powerful!

  • Separate

    Wow this is truly stunning imagery! This really makes me hope the Obama administration will continue to pour more funds into space exploration and the likes!

  • Rob Ferret

    Wow those images are amazing, thanks for the video it looks great. This is really interesting to think of even further links and relations to the sun and earth on top of the well known relation between plants and the sun. It will be excellent to see the outcomes of the LWS program.

  • Ronda Moore

    Although I wasn’t gifted with a scientific mind, I grew up in a space family (no, not the Jetsons). My grandfather started as a milkman in the San Fernando Valley and ended his career working for Aerojet on the Titan II engines for the Apollo flights. He was very committed to the assembly and testing of second stage engines valves on the Titan series rockets at Vandenburg AFB. In addition to some barn storming, my dad also followed a career in supporting the exploration of space that took him from the Titan program at Vandenburg to the Shuttle Program with Lockheed-Martin.
    I am absolutely captivated by the photos and videos on this site, particularly the clips on the dimensions of our planet in relationship to other stars and planets in the universe as we know it. Seeing the sun nestled in the Milky Way in 3D, and then its relationship to Earth and Arcturus fascinates, challenges and boggles my terrestrial mental map.
    You have a huge fan here. This research is so important.
    Thank you! My family will really enjoy seeing this.


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  • Anthony Smythe

    It is truly amazing how someone can take a photo of the sun and also know the temperature and amount of the ionized helium and ionized iron that is present.