April 21, 2010 — What you're seeing here is the highest resolution photograph of the sun available to date, part of a brand new series of NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) observations. The SDO mission promises "10 times better clarity than a high-definition television," NASA says, and this first SDO image doesn't disappoint.
Taken from a series of movies of bubbling plasma erupting to the solar surface, this is a close-up shot of what's called an expanding solar prominence, seen in extreme ultraviolet light. We are basically looking deep into the throat of the fine structure of an eruption on our nearest star.
The light we are seeing in this observation is generated by plasma heated to around 50,000 Kelvin (twice as hot as a bolt of lightning). A solar prominence is a looped structure of hot plasma, wrapped in magnetic fields from the sun's "surface" (or the photosphere), projecting high into the solar atmosphere (the sun's corona). But this is only one of the many eyes of SDO; it is already revolutionizing our understanding of the sun.
It is critical for us to gain such detailed observations of the sun to enable better predictions of how the sun affects interplanetary space — from interacting with the Earth's atmosphere to create beautiful aurorae, to ultimately threatening communication satellites in orbit and sensitive electronics down here on the surface.
The SDO is the culmination of decades of solar research, providing a balance between understanding the small-scale dynamics of plasma and magnetic fields on the solar surface and gaining a wide-angle view of the entire solar disk. According to the NASA scientists at today's SDO press conference, they are already seeing new, uncharted features from these first observations, so this is one space mission to watch very closely.