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Stare at the Sun, Without the Blinding Side Effects

Composite of images of the sun from April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013. (courtesy NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger)
Composite image of views of the sun from April 16, 2012, to April 15, 2013. (courtesy NASA/SDO/AIA/S. Wiessinger)

The sun is the gorgeous heart of our solar system, but don’t look right at it, because without ocular pain receptors you can’t feel its flaring beauty burn your eyes. However, in a video released this week by NASA, you can stare at it for the equivalent of three years in just three minutes, making it the most efficient and safe way to look at the solar cycles yet — as well as a really cool example of how photography can show us that which is not visible to our delicate eyes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory has been on a mission to document the sun since launching in 2010, orbiting the Earth while training its gaze on our central star. Now the three years of almost constant photography have been compiled in this rare extended view at the sun. At a wavelength of 171 angstroms, the video shows sharply the sun’s ultraviolet range, meaning that the sun’s 25-day rotation and dynamic solar activity are especially visible. (If it seems to get bigger and smaller, don’t worry, the sun isn’t going nova it’s just that the SDO in orbit getting closer and further away.)

Besides being stunning, such studies can help with knowing more about “space weather,” like when a solar flare might mess with our satellites. You can also briefly glimpse occurences like a partial eclipse of the moon (at 0:30 and 02:28), the Comet Lovejoy (01:28), the Transit of Venus (01:51), and the August 9, 2011 flare, the largest of the past three years (01:11). It’s all set to cycling violin music by Martin Lass, a musician who is actually an astrologist himself, a good fit for a video all about looking at the stars, or, in this case, our favorite star. The video that merges the scientific with the artistic is a great reminder of how data that can seem abstract like the measurement of solar activity can be so gorgeously transmitted (of course, helped here by the object in question already being quite striking), and how with developing modes of photograph we can see things that we could never look at directly before.

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