NASA spacecraft release the first three-dimensional images of the sun
Posted on: 08/03/2012 07:51 PM

NASA's twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft have made the first three-dimensional images of the sun. The new view will greatly aid scientists’ ability to understand solar physics and thereby improve space weather forecasting.

"The improvement with STEREO's 3-D view is like going from a regular X-ray to a 3-D CAT scan in the medical field," said Dr. Michael Kaiser, STEREO Project Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

The STEREO spacecraft were launched October 25, 2006. On January 21 they completed a series of complex maneuvers, including flying by the moon, to position the spacecraft in their mission orbits. The two observatories are now orbiting the sun, one slightly ahead of Earth and one slightly behind, separating from each other by approximately 45 degrees per year. Just as the slight offset between a person’s eyes provides depth perception, the separation of spacecraft allow 3-D images of the sun.

Violent solar weather originates in the sun's atmosphere, or corona, and can disrupt satellites, radio communication, and power grids on Earth. The corona resembles wispy smoke plumes, which flow outward along the sun's tangled magnetic fields. It's difficult for scientists to tell which structures are in front and which are behind.

"In the solar atmosphere, there are no clues to help us judge distance. Everything appears flat in the 2-D plane of the sky. Having a stereo perspective just makes it so much easier," said Dr. Russell Howard of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, the Principal Investigator for the SECCHI (Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation) suite of telescopes on the spacecraft.

"With STEREO's 3-D imagery, we'll be able to discern where matter and energy flows in the solar atmosphere much more precisely than with the 2-D views available before. This will really help us understand the complex physics going on," said Howard.

For more images and video check out NASA's site

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