Montana State University

Crowd views new solar images that MSU helped capture

April 21, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Solar flares are among the features photographed by the new Solar Dynamics Observatory. Launched Feb. 11, the observatory is the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun and its dynamic behavior. (NASA photo).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Stunning new images of the sun beamed onto the Montana State University campus Wednesday afternoon, drawing a crowd that wanted to see solar photographs that MSU scientists helped capture.

Researchers who played a major part in obtaining those images and others gathered in the lobby of the Engineering Physical Sciences Building to view the first images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. They watched solar flares dancing, plasma erupting at one million m.p.h., and much more.

Even for a hardcore physicist, the images provoked a sense of wonder and awe, SDO program scientist Madhulika Guhathakurt said from NASA headquarters during a live feed of a news conference to unveil the images.

Piet Martens, an MSU research professor who led MSU's part of the project with David McKenzie, associate research professor, said the images are so clear that they will help scientists understand more than they've ever known about the sun.

Martens and McKenzie helped design and calibrate four telescopes that were launched Feb. 11 on the Solar Dynamics Observatory from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They were partners with scientists at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Graduate student Jason Scott helped design and test the software that's operating the cameras on the telescopes. MSU graduate student Andres Munoz wrote the programs to carry out the simulations of solar magnetic fields that are featured on the SDO Web site, and that will be tested with SDO observations. His video is featured on the SDO Web.

The telescopes -- together called the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly or AIA -- will spend at least three years collecting ultraviolet images from the sun's atmosphere, McKenzie said in February. Each of the four telescopes will collect ultraviolet rays at two different wavelengths. Together, they will yield 1,500 gigabytes of data every day.

The observatory is now producing so many images that no one can look at them all, Martens said. For that reason, he is heading a second NASA-funded project, which involves scientists at 10 institutions worldwide. Together in the Solar Dynamics Observatory Science Center, the scientists are developing feature recognition software so they will be notified when the telescopes have picked up solar flares or other features that interest them. The software will know when the telescopes have picked up those images, then alert scientists and the NOAA, the U.S. agency responsible for space weather forecasting. The software will also automatically create movies of the features and make them available online within minutes.

McKenzie said 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. The ultimate goal is to use this information to develop advanced forecasting tools in NASA's Living With a Star program. The Solar Dynamics Observatory is the first mission in the program.

Martens said Wednesday that MSU's involvement in the Solar Dynamics Observatory not only advances science, but it created opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to become involved in research.

In relation to that, Angela Des Jardins, director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium, announced a new scholarship on the one-year anniversary of the death of William A. Hiscock. Hiscock, former director of the MSGC and former head of MSU's physics department, died April 21, 2009. For more information on the Hiscock Memorial Scholarship, see

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or