Last week, on 11 February, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) lifted off from Cape Canaveral on a five-year mission to study the Sun. Researchers have called the advanced spacecraft the "crown jewel" of Nasa's heliophysics fleet. SDO will beam back IMAX-quality images of solar explosions and peer beneath the stellar surface to see the Sun's magnetic dynamo in action.
SDO is designed to amaze — and it got off to a good start.
"The observatory did something amazing before it even left the atmosphere," says SDO project scientist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Centre.
Moments after launch, SDO's Atlas V rocket flew past a sundog hanging suspended in the blue Florida sky and, with a rippling flurry of shock waves, destroyed it. (Watch the video recorded by 13-year-old Anna Herbst at Nasa's Banana River viewing site… |click here|.)
The effect on the crowd was electric.
"When the sundog disappeared, we started screaming and jumping up and down," says Pesnell. "SDO hit a home run: perfect launch, rippling waves, and a disappearing sundog. You couldn't ask for a better start for a mission."
SDO is now in orbit. "The observatory is doing great as the post-launch checkout continues," he reports. "We'll spend much of the first month moving into our final orbit and then we'll turn on the instruments. The first jaw-dropping images should be available sometime in April."
Believe it or not, Pesnell says, the best is yet to come.
* Watch SDO obliterating a sundog