Some days, it’s difficult to believe that the gentle yellow sun presiding over idyllic scenes of toddlers picking dandelions, babies napping on a blanket, and moms preparing fresh-squeezed lemonade (okay, grabbing the juice boxes) is the same
active and dangerous
releasing powerful chunks of its corona,
hydrogen, and high-energy particles
that can damage spacecraft
disrupt cell phone signals
and wreak havoc
but it is.
NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft, orbiting the sun a few degees away from each other (one on either side of earth in its orbit), have just returned some amazing images of our closest star. The STEREO spacecraft were launched just before Halloween by a team of NASA scientists and engineers who spent years imagining, designing, proposing, refining, building, assembling, and finally transporting the instruments and spacecraft down to Cape Canaveral. It was a beautiful night launch (you can view the video here). All went well, and the images coming back are simply fantastic.
Of course, the images only tell a small part of the story. There are four sets of instruments proposed and built by teams from universities and national laboratories from Washington, D.C., to California. These instruments measure many different aspects of the solar radiation. When more data has been returned, it will be analysed and reported on in scientific publications. We’ll follow along here as news is announced, but for now, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first images from this amazing mission.
Start with this video for kids. Then feel free to browse around the mission site, including the Learning Center that they’ve set up for members of the public — you and me — and our children. It’s got everything, from a FAQ to sample classroom activity ideas. There are also amazing new 3D images (released just last week!) that can be seen on the web or at many science museums and planetariums around the U.S. — go to the mission home page to find out where!