So what’s up with those blank squares? You’re looking at a screen capture of a page of pictures of the sun in photographed in ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). The photos were shot 15 minutes apart starting Wednesday evening into Thursday morning this week.
Since SDO circles Earth in a geosynchronous orbit about 22,000 miles high, it “sees” the sun continuously both day and night from a vantage point high above Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. About 1.5 terabytes of solar data or the equivalent of half a million songs from iTunes are downloaded to antennas in White Sands, New Mexico every day. The space station, which orbits much closer to Earth, would make a poor solar observatory since Earth blocks the sun for half of every 90 minute orbit.
Did I say SDO watches the sun continuously? Well, not quite. Twice a year for a period of about three weeks around the equinoxes, the Earth gets in the way of the sun from the space craft’s point of view, causing a total solar eclipse. The latest round of eclipses began on September 6 and will conclude on the 26th.
Now you know the reason for the blank frames – it’s a conspiracy by the Earth to block out the sun. The blackness is none other than the planet itself.
Total eclipse happens every day between 1 and 2 a.m. local time (Mountain Daylight Time) when the Earth blocks the sun from SDO’s view. In similar fashion, we experience a solar eclipse on the ground when the moon covers up the sun. You can watch for pictures of the partial eclipse as Earth gets out of the way sometime next Tuesday the 25th by going to the SDO website. Follow these simple steps to find and view the images:
* Click on the Data tab and select AIA/HMI Browse Data
* Click on the Enter Start Date window, select a start date and click Done
* Click on Enter End Date and click Done
* Under Telescopes, pick the color (wavelength) sun you want
* Select Images in the display box
* Click Submit at the bottom and then browse the pictures
While watching an eclipse of the sun by the Earth is one of the joys of living in the space age, there are other cool things to see from SDO’s perspective. Look at the drastic difference between the moon’s sharp outline and Earth’s fuzzy edge. Our planet “bites softly” into the sun because its substantial atmosphere grades from thick to thin, filtering the sunlight that passes through it. The moon’s a big baldy. With no air to grade and soften the light, the sun shines crisply right up to its edge.
Video of a partial eclipse of the sun by Earth. Refraction of light by Earth’s atmosphere causes the sun to bend at its edges. Credit: NASA SDO / Stanford University for HMI
We’ve seen how air can also bend or refract sunlight in strange ways, going so far as to “lift” the sun into view when it’s still below the horizon. You can see the same effect in a brand new way in this short video of an SDO partial eclipse. Watch the sun’s edge bend as the Earth rolls by. Compare it to a similar eclipse by the moon below.
Moon eclipsing sun via SDO
SDO amazes with its spectacular pictures of the sun taken in 10 different wavelengths of light every 10 seconds; additional instruments study vibrations on the sun’s surface, magnetic fields and how much UV radiation the sun pours into space.
It’s the latest, greatest “Swiss Army knife” used by scientists to pry open the inner workings of the sun. The eclipses, while a gap in the data stream, are a sweet bonus all their own.