NASA used the occasion of the Super Bowl to release images of the far side of the Sun collected with its twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft.
The STEREO images included this video of the rotating sun.
The unique perspective is possible because the two STEREO spacecraft are now virtually opposite each other in their heliocentric orbits, with the Sun between them. Over time, the resolution will only get better as more data come in.
Launched in 2006, the STERO mission is designed to give space-weather forecasters a better understanding of the huge coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that fling heavy clouds of plasma into space. The solar storms can damage spacecraft and disrupt terrestrial power grids if they are not adjusted to withstand them. But from Earth’s single point of view toward the Sun, it is difficult to know if a particular CME will strike Earth or miss it entirely.
Scientists have helped forecasters achieve some accuracy in their forecasts by studying solar history to match the face the Sun presents to Earth with ensuing CMEs. Sometimes it is possible to measure the shape of a feature on the solar disk and predict whether it represents a CME heading our way.
But the STEREO view allows forecasters to make much more accurate forecasts, modeling how the plasma moves through space in terms of velocity and density to give satellite operators and power companies more warning to button down their vulnerable systems. This example shows the sort of God’s-eye view the twin spacecraft give forecasters. As the mission continues, the models that produce it should become more accurate.
Looking at this video, it quickly becomes obvious that the improved forecasting accuracy STEREO provides will have long-term value as humans push beyond low Earth orbit on the way to Mars and the asteroids. CMEs can be deadly to astronauts, and spacecraft designers have long pondered how to shield them as the solar storms pass. The STEREO data should help future forecasters know when to send human explorers to their solar-storm shelters.