Montana State University

MSU helped design solar telescopes launched Feb. 11

February 4, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

The Solar Dynamics Observatory is enclosed in the nose section of the Atlas V Rocket in preparation for launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. MSU scientists helped design and calibrate telescopes that will ride on the rocket. (Photo courtesy of David McKenzie).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Solar physicists at Montana State University helped design and calibrate four telescopes that were launched the morning of Thursday, Feb. 11, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

David McKenzie, an associate research professor at MSU, and Piet Martens, an MSU research professor, were in Florida for the launch on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

McKenzie and Martens helped design the telescopes with partners at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, McKenzie said. They've been working on the project for about six years.

"It is the culmination of a long wait," McKenzie said of the launch.

Graduate student Jason Scott of Butte helped design and test the software that will operate the cameras on the telescopes. He said he plans to be in California from Feb. 15 to mid-March to work with Lockheed Martin scientists to see how the instruments are working and analyze initial data.

"It's been a great experience," he said.

McKenzie said the UV telescopes -- together called an Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, or AIA -- will spend at least three years collecting ultraviolet images from the sun's atmosphere. Each of the four telescopes will collect ultraviolet rays at two different wavelengths. Together, they will yield 1,000 gigabytes of information every day.

"That's more than anyone can look at in a lifetime," McKenzie said.

The information will be transmitted to computers in the Midwest and sent to MSU, Stanford University and Lockheed Martin for analysis, McKenzie said. He added that Martens has a grant, jointly with the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, to develop computer software for automatically recognizing features in the solar images returned by AIA.

The main goal of the UV telescopes is to help scientists understand the physics behind the activity on the sun's corona, which drives space weather, McKenzie said. The ultimate goal is to use this information to develop advanced forecasting tools in NASA's Living With a Star program.

The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly was one of three instrument packages that were launched on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, McKenzie added. A second package -- a helioseismic and magnetic imager -- will take pictures of the sun's surface. That's where sunspots occur and scientists take measurements so they can study the interior of the sun. The third instrument package -- EVE, or Extreme UV Variability Experiment -- will take precise measurements of the UV radiation that comes from the sun to the Earth and variations in the radiation.

Ultraviolet rays cause sunburns, but they also affect the chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere, McKenzie said. UV rays relate to global warming, ozone layers and greenhouse effect. He added that the sun is a very active star.

"We need to understand how it's producing these activities that affect us," McKenzie said.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory is the first satellite to be launched in NASA's Living with a Star program, McKenzie said. The program focuses on the sun-Earth connection, space weather and the environment we live in because the Earth travels through the sun's atmosphere.

For more information about the mission, see

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or