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Space observatory unravels sun's mysteries

Module sending back strange, beautiful show

March 13, 1997
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EST

PARIS (CNN) -- The sun's orange-red brilliance is set off against the starry background of the Sagittarian constellation and the Milky Way, its violent solar winds swirling in all directions.

A comet streaks across the sky, headed straight toward the solar surface. Swallowed up in the mass of fiery gas, the comet vanishes.

This remarkable, close-up sequence of goings on in and around our sun -- and other equally remarkable scenes like it -- have been made possible by SOHO, a solar observatory launched by the European Space Agency.

SOHO sits between the Earth and the sun, in a special orbit which allows the observatory to face the sun continuously without being damaged by its heat. Scientists are getting uninterrupted information about the sun's activities from SOHO, which is beaming the strangely beautiful show back for viewing on Earth.

"We really get that feeling of the sun as a star," says the space agency's Guenther Bruckner. "It's really very beautiful."

Sun's affect on Earth being explored

SOHO is also providing scientists, and the rest of us, with new information on how the sun's activity might affect us here on Earth.

For instance, in early January, an eruption on the sun's surface threw a great puff of gas towards Earth. As the gas cloud swelled, it appeared as a halo around the sun in photos snapped by SOHO.

Four days later, the effects of the eruption reached the SOHO module itself. Measurements showed that the solar wind increased from 350 kilometers per second to more than 500 kilometers per second (215 miles per second to 310 miles per second). Soon afterward, American, Russian and Japanese satellites registered the event, which caused a magnetic storm and bright auroras.

The doomed comet entered the solar atmosphere around Christmas time last year. Bruckner says scientists believe that the comet, which entered the gas cloud but did not come out the other side, must have impacted on the sun.

Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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