New 3-D View of the Sun

For the first time scientists are getting a look at images of the sun in three dimensions.

At a demonstration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge last week, scientists and audience members donned 3D glasses and watched as solar storms erupted toward them.

"To say we are pretty excited is an understatement," said JPL scientist Jean Pierre Wuelser, co-investigator for STEREO at Lockheed Martin. He was at JPL for the press conference on the new images.

This 3-D version is not just a Hollywood effect but also a tool that greatly improves the ability of predicting solar weather. In the same way meteorologists predict a hurricane on Earth; JPL and NASA scientists hope to predict solar storms. This is accomplished by twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory [STEREO] spacecraft that take images of the Sun from two different angles.

"Until STEREO we were seeing 15 percent [of the Sun's system]," said Paulette Liewer, co-investigator for STEREO at JPL. "We can now image the entire system."

In the past scientists would use models to predict the solar storms, their path to Earth and what effect they would have on communications. Solar storms can affect the Earth in several ways.

"They can disrupt satellite communications, Earth to Earth [communications] with blackouts up to two hours," said Wuelser. "Even a GPS [global positioning system] can be affected. And if there are astronauts in space they can be in danger."

Solar storms can affect astronauts on the space shuttle while they are conducting a space walk, or future astronauts on their way to the moon or Mars. The ability to predict the strength, time and affect of the solar storms will help in many ways including communications between Earth and military and disaster satellites.

The 3D images study the Sun's corona, composed of swirling clouds of extremely hot plasma. Each twin satellite has five telescopes nested together with different views. With this more intensive study scientists hope to discover why some solar storms affect the Earth while others do not.

JPL has released images to several observatories and museums throughout the country and plan on sharing more images in the future. For those who wish to see new images of the Sun visit www.nasa.gov/stereo.

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