NASA Highlight Reel Shows Sun's Most Explosive Moments

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A composite of 25 separate images from SDO spanning the period of February 11, 2013 to February 11, 2014 reveals the zones on the sun where active regions, and associated eruptions, are most common during this part of the solar cycle. S. Wiessinger/SDO/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

For the last five years, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has trained its gaze on the Earth-facing side of the sun, studying its eruptions.

To do this, the SDO, a semi-autonomous spacecraft that was launched into orbit on February 11, 2010, has captured an image of the sun nearly once a second, in the process building a fascinating record of solar activity.

The imagery allows the viewer "to watch the constant ballet of solar material through the sun's atmosphere, the corona," NASA says. "Five years into its mission, SDO continues to send back tantalizing imagery to incite scientists' curiosity."

NASA celebrated SDO's fifth birthday this week with the release of two online videos.

The first is a compilation of mission highlights, in which viewers can observe "giant clouds of solar material hurled out into space, the dance of giant loops hovering in the corona, and huge sunspots growing and shrinking on the sun's surface," according to its description on YouTube.

The second video shows a time lapse of the sun starting from June 2010 up until Sunday, with eight hours separating each frame and the colors indicating different wavelengths.

NASA creates the images using computer programs which translate data from binary code into black-and-white images to which scientists can then add color. They can also zoom in to focus on certain areas.

Scientists watch the sun in different wavelengths, which correspond to solar material of different temperatures, NASA explains. By observing how those materials move through the sun's atmosphere, they can collect information to answer outstanding questions such as: "What causes eruptions on the sun, what heats the sun's atmosphere up to 1,000 times hotter than its surface, and why are the sun's magnetic fields constantly on the move?"

"There have now been more than 2,000 scientific papers published based on SDO data," Dean Pesnell, project scientist for SDO at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, is quoted as saying in NASA's press release. "SDO has also led to wonderful international collaborations, with the data being shared and used all over the world."

In recent months, a video art installation called Solarium has also taken advantage of the images gathered by SDO.

Created by multimedia producer Genna Duberstein, heliophysics and astrophysics video producer Scott Wiessinger and maker of data visualizations Tom Bridgman, Solarium immerses visitors in massive images and sounds from the SDO.

"You, the viewer, can have the rare chance to find details nobody has noticed before," Duberstein tells Newsweek in an email. "Look to the left of the flare, the right of the eruption. Find a flicker in the murky black spaces and allow yourself to simply appreciate its beauty."

Solarium showed at the King Street Arts Festival in Alexandria, Virginia; Georgia State University's Window Project in Atlanta; and went on display Tuesday at the Goddard Space Flight Center Visitor Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. It's also part of an exhibit at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona through May 17.

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Standing in front of Solarium at the Goddard Visitor Center NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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The silhouette of a child in 'Solarium' at the Goddard Visitor Center NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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Concept art of a three-wall demo of 'Solarium' NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

"It evokes a sense of wonder when we see these beautiful images;" Lika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist, says of the material derived from SDO. "It stokes our curiosity and it connects us personally to the deepest mysteries—from the warmth we feel on our skin when we walk outside on a sunny day to the distant reaches of the cosmos."