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SOHO gives scientists a better look at the sun

gif of solar flare July 31, 1997
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EDT (0340 GMT)

From Correspondent Ann Kellan

(CNN) -- As the dog days of summer begin in earnest, the heat index here on Earth is still nothing compared to the temperatures on the sun, where the corona -- or atmosphere -- can hit 1 million degrees.

And as they cope with Earth's summer heat, NASA scientists are getting a better view of the sun, compliments of a space telescope called the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory -- SOHO, for short.

NASA has released new movies showing bubbles of gas exploding from the sun's surface as seen in the animation at the top of this page. The explosions are fueled by electro-magnetic forces generated deep within the sun.

Craig Deforest, a solar research scientist, explains the pictures from SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

The SOHO spacecraft has been orbiting the sun since December 1995. Scientists say it offers them the clearest vantage point ever for conducting solar research.

glowing sun

"SOHO's advantage is that it's a million miles cloers to the sun than we are, so it's got a clear, uninterrupted view," says scientist Craig Deforest. "The moon doesn't get in the way, the planet doesn't get in the way, so every few minutes we can snap another image of the sun."

Periods of intense solar activity occur in 11-year cycles. So far this year, SOHO has spotted two major solar events -- called coronal mass ejections -- that sent huge waves of electromagnetic energy washing out toward Earth.

Such "solar storms" can destroy sensitive electronics on satellites, disrupting power transmission on Earth.

The storms also fuel the Northern and Southern lights.

Green sun

"The corona is really not a quiet place. There really is no such thing as what we thought was the standard thing before, the quiet sun," Deforest said.

Scientists say this cycle of solar activity is on the rise and will likely peak in the year 2001.

"We're exiting 'solar minimum,' it's called, so we'll see more and more of these active regions, sun spots, and in turn the storms that they cause in interplanetary space," Deforest said.

And as solar activitiy increases, scientists expect to learn more by keeping a watchful eye on the sun.

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