An artist's concept of STEREO surrounding the sun.
An artist's concept of STEREO surrounding the sun. NASA
For the first time in history, NASA now has a continuous 3-D look at the sun. NASA launched two "STEREO" probes in 2006 and yesterday they reached their respective locations on either side of the sun.
"This is a big moment in solar physics," said Angelos Vourlidas, a member of the STEREO science team at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. "STEREO has revealed the sun as it really is — a sphere of hot plasma and intricately woven magnetic fields."
A 3-D Video Of The Sun
Rotating solar sphere made from a combination of imagery from the two STEREO spacecraft, together with simultaneous data from the Solar Dynamic Observatory.
Other than how cool the video and photographs are, there is actually a practical use for this. For the first time, scientists can see the whole sun at the same time. So, say, in the past, if a big sun spot emerged on the distant side of the sun, it could've caught scientists off guard.
That sun spot could've caused a disruptive solar storm on Earth. Now, scientists can be forewarned. NASA reports that this program can also help find connections we didn't know about before:
For instance, researchers have long suspected that solar activity can "go global," with eruptions on opposite sides of the sun triggering and feeding off of one another. Now they can actually study the phenomenon. The Great Eruption of August 2010 engulfed about 2/3rd of the stellar surface with dozens of mutually interacting flares, shock waves, and reverberating filaments. Much of the action was hidden from Earth, but plainly visible to the STEREO-SDO fleet.
"There are many fundamental puzzles underlying solar activity," says Vourlidas. "By monitoring the whole sun, we can find missing pieces."
Also, we'd be remiss to not send you to NASA's site, where they have a ton more videos and graphics.