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Successful Launch of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory - 18th February 2010

SDO Launch


Last Thursday saw the successful launch of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The satellite was launched from an Atlas V rocket at 1523 GMT into a geosynchronous orbit with an altitude 35,890 kilometres. From this position the spacecraft will direct its three instruments towards the Sun and will soon begin sending back data of unprecedented resolution. The launch was the second lift-off attempt as high winds caused the launch window on Wednesday to be missed. 


SDO lasting off from Cape Canaveral on Thursday 11 February 2010. Photo credit NASA/Sandra Joseph and Tony Gray.




SDO is a five-year mission to study many aspects of the Sun and their effects on the Earth and solar system. It is the first mission to be launched as part of NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) program which aims to look at how the Sun and the solar system affect life and society on Earth. For example, now that the solar cycle is beginning to ramp up again (as shown in the new active regions seen by SOHO) there are concerns over how solar activity will affect the many satellites that orbit the Earth. Large flares from the Sun have damaged and even destroyed satellites in the past, which is a real concern for our technology-dependent society. Understanding what causes solar flares and improving our ability to predict them is one of the goals that SDO will help to achieve. (See here for more on SDO Science objectives: 



What the SDO satellite looks like. Image credit NASA.

The Sun seen by SOHO/EIT on 17 February 2010. The Sun is now recently coming out of an extended solar minimum and is showing more active regions in both hemispheres.

The mission has been highly anticipated by solar physicists around the world because of the unprecedented high resolution that will be seen. SDO will take a full-disk image of the Sun in 8 different wavelengths (i.e. at different temperatures) every 10 seconds with a spatial resolution of 4096 x 4096 pixels (i.e. IMAX quality in terms of clarity and sharpness). The enormous data rate that SDO will send down is equivalent to downloading half a million songs a day! This has led to a major effort by scientists to construct a proper pipeline for the data so that once it starts to flow, solar physicists around the world can get access to it. 


SDO is a very important mission for UCLan - as well as looking forward to doing some amazing science with the data, we are also lucky enough to be the only UK data centre for the SDO mission which will enable us to serve SDO images to UK and European scientists. The launch was watched by members of UCLan’s Astrophysics group on campus via NASA TV (see the cool movies of the launch here:


Robert Walsh, University Director of Research and member of the Solar Physics Group at UCLan watching the live launch in UCLan's Mitchell and Kenyon Cinema via NASA TV. Image credit Chris Theobald.

The UCLan astrophysics department also enjoying the launch. Image credit Mark Butler.


The satellite is currently still being manoeuvred into its final orbit where it will be a few months before scientists can start to work on the data and hopefully make some groundbreaking discoveries.

 The first SDO images will be put up on the news site when they become available.



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