Intrepid Solar Spacecraft Celebrates 10th Anniversary
NASA — The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft celebrates its 10th anniversary December 2. The SOHO mission, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), has allowed scientists to make significant advances in understanding the closest star, our sun.
This includes the violent solar activity that causes stormy space weather, which can disrupt satellites, radio communication, and power systems on Earth.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of SOHO to the worldwide solar science community,” says Dr. Joe Gurman, U.S. Project Scientist for SOHO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “In the last ten years, SOHO has revolutionized our ideas about the solar interior and atmosphere, and the acceleration of the solar wind.”
Some of SOHO’s major scientific accomplishments include:
- Allowing space weather forecasters to give up to three days notice of Earth-directed disturbances and playing a lead role in the early warning system for space weather.
- The most detailed and precise measurements beneath the surface of the sun.
- The first images of a star’s turbulent outer shell (the convection zone) and of the structure of sunspots beneath the solar surface.
- Making the sun transparent: the ability to create images of the sun’s far side, including stormy regions there that will turn with the sun and threaten the Earth.
- Discovering a mechanism that releases more than enough energy to heat the sun’s atmosphere (corona) to 100 times its surface temperature.
- Discovering that a series of eruptions of ionized gas (coronal mass ejections) from the sun blasts a “highway” through space where solar energetic particles flow. These particles disrupt satellites and are hazardous to astronauts outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic field.
- Monitoring the sun’s energy output (the “total solar irradiance” or “solar constant”) as well as variations in the sun’s extreme ultraviolet radiation, both of which are important to understand the impact of solar variability on Earth’s climate.
- Identifying the source regions and acceleration mechanisms of the solar wind, a thin stream of ionized gas that constantly flows from the sun and buffets Earth’s magnetosphere.
- SOHO data is freely available over the Internet, and people all over the world have used images from the observatory to discover more than 1,000 comets.
SOHO data is freely available over the Internet, and people all over the world have used images from the observatory to discover more than 1,000 comets.
“I tip my hat to SOHO’s engineering and operations teams, whose skills and dedication have overcome multiple, technical challenges over the last decade – loss of control of the spacecraft in 1998, the loss of the gyros when we recovered the spacecraft a few months later, and a sticky high gain antenna in 2003,” said Dr. Bernhard Fleck, ESA Project Scientist for SOHO.
The observatory was originally designed for a two-year mission, but its scientific insights proved so valuable that in 1997, it was granted an extension until 2003. In 2002, another extension was granted for observations through March 2007, allowing the spacecraft to cover a complete 11-year solar cycle. For more information about SOHO, visit: The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory web site.
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