Solar images go down a storm

NASA has unveiled remarkable new images of the sun, taken from a satellite investigating what drives turbulent solar activity.

The super-fine resolution recordings show huge explosions and enormous looping arcs of gas. They were taken by Nasa's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) launched in February on a rocket from Cape Canaveral.

Lika Guhathakurta, the project's programme scientist, said: "When we see these fantastic images, even hardcore solar physicists like myself are struck with awe, literally."

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Solar activity has a deep influence on the Earth. Huge eruptions of charged particles and the emission of intense radiation can disrupt satellites and power systems, and pose a serious health risk to astronauts.

SDO is equipped with three instruments to investigate the physics at work inside and on the surface of the sun, as well as in its atmosphere.

The probe views the entire solar disc with a resolution ten times better than the average high-definition television camera, allowing it to pick out features on the surface and in the atmosphere as small as 220 miles across.

Varying wavelengths in which the instruments operate mean scientists can study the sun's atmosphere layer by layer.

A key part of the project is investigating the inner workings of the solar dynamo, the deep network of plasma currents generating the sun's tangled and sometimes explosive magnetic field.

It is the dynamo that ultimately lies behind all forms of solar activity, from the solar flares exploding in the sun's atmosphere to the relatively cool patches, or sunspots, moving across its surface for days or even weeks.