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The Stunning Sun: NASA Scientists Select Their Favorite Pics From SDO

Jan 20, 2015 11:17 PM EST

NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) snapped its 100 millionth image of the Sun since it launched into orbit back in 2010. Now, to commemorate this milestone, a pair of NASA's top scientists involved in the mission selected some of their most favorite images. We've selected the best of those best to share with you...

The first image (seen above) shows what the SDO is really all about. The unmanned space telescope will use one of three instruments to collect data on a solar event, and combined, they can create some amazing and enlightening imagery.

This colorful image in particular shows the power of the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) which uses four telescopes working parallel to gather eight images of the Sun - cycling through 10 different wavelengths - every 12 seconds. This photo was taken during a single solar event, and each color represents a different wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light present in the Sun's corona (the aura of plasma that surrounds the Sun). The wavelengths in turn correlate to material of different temperatures. The result is a pin-wheel of different faces for the same incredible star.

Here's some imagery you might expect a bit more from the fiery and tumultuous surface of the Sun. This was a moderately sized solar flare that occurred back in Feb. 24, 2011. From the SDO's perspective, the flare was erupting right off the side of the Sun, providing astronomers with an excellent view of the eruption in all its violent majesty. Because the AIA images are able to filter radiation and light that would otherwise be called photographic "noise," we can even see a billowing mass of plasma that flowed and twisted over a 90 minute period during the flare.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation, and what exactly causes them still remains unclear. It has long been suspected that a great deal of solar activity has to do with clashes between the mysterious magnetic forces that keep the solar material of our Sun rolling across its surface. Life on Earth is protected from solar flares by the atmosphere, but when strong enough, solar flares can disrupt the layer of the atmosphere where GPS and communications signals travel.

If you're like me, this next one will leave you breathless. It may look a lot like some wild finger-painting, but this was actually shaped by the incredible forces of the Sun.

Using the AIA, NASA's SDO team was able to trace our the giant and mysterious magnetic fields that snake through the Sun by following the paths of solar material. They traced out to form what are called coronal loops, which can be seen here as white lines. The AIA image was laid over data from the SDO's Helioseismic Magnetic Imager, which shows magnetic fields on the Sun's surface in the other false colors displayed.

No, you didn't accidentally click your way into some modern artist's page, and believe it or not, that's still the Sun. This crazy photo duo shows a mysterious and elusive type of wave that appears to shake the Sun's corona, and may be tied to violent activity like flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

According to NASA's Dean Pesnell, a SDO project scientist, and Karel Schrijver, the AIA principal investigator at Lockheed Martin, the image on the left shows a flare caught in action in May 2011. The image on the right is an overlay of images showing the differences in the corona before and after that flare occurred. These mysterious waves run at speeds exceeding 1,200 miles per second, and might more appropriately be called "shivers" on the Sun.

Last but not least, this is just simply, as the SDO team puts it, "a spectacular eruption." Taken on June 7, 2011, solar activity lifted an enormous amount of cool, dark material into the corona, only to drop it back onto the surface of the Sun. What's more, the tossed material then fell victim to the gravitational energy of its own decent, superheating well past a million degrees Fahrenheit.

"Scientists concluded that this event on the Sun was a small-scale version of what happens as stars form and collect gases via gravity," the SDO team reported. "Thus, AIA allowed us to study in detail a phenomenon that cannot be observed so closely anywhere else in the Universe."

If you want to see more images like these, check out NASA's entire celebratory slide show here.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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