Monday, December 22, 2014

Sun Shines in High-Energy X-rays

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

X-rays stream off the sun in this image showing observations from by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, overlaid on a picture taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). This is the first picture of the sun taken by NuSTAR. The field of view covers the west limb of the sun. "NuSTAR will give us a unique look at the sun, from the deepest to the highest parts of its atmosphere," said David Smith, a solar physicist and member of the NuSTAR team at University of California, Santa Cruz.

The NuSTAR data, seen in green and blue, reveal solar high-energy emission (green shows energies between 2 and 3 kiloelectron volts, and blue shows energies between 3 and 5 kiloelectron volts). The high-energy X-rays come from gas heated to above 3 million degrees.

The red channel represents ultraviolet light captured by SDO at wavelengths of 171 angstroms, and shows the presence of lower-temperature material in the solar atmosphere at 1 million degrees.

This image shows that some of the hotter emission tracked by NuSTAR is coming from different locations in the active regions and the coronal loops than the cooler emission shown in the SDO image.

Solar scientists first thought of using NuSTAR to study the sun about seven years ago, after the space telescope's design and construction was already underway (the telescope launched into space in 2012). Smith had contacted the principal investigator, Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who mulled it over and became excited by the idea. 

"At first I thought the whole idea was crazy," says Harrison. "Why would we have the most sensitive high energy X-ray telescope ever built, designed to peer deep into the universe, look at something in our own back yard?" Smith eventually convinced Harrison, explaining that faint X-ray flashes predicted by theorists could only be seen by NuSTAR.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California; ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, California, and with support from the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Science Data Center.

NuSTAR's mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, with the ASI providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

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