Decades of solar activity condensed into 47-minute time-lapse video
Scientists have condensed decades of footage taken of our Sun’s atmosphere into a 47-minute video showcasing solar activity on a grand scale. The video was released to celebrate the 25th orbital anniversary of the NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric observatory (SOHO), which has made countless contributions to humanity’s understanding of Earth’s parent star.
The SOHO satellite launched on December 2nd, 1995 with an ambitious mission to unravel the secrets surrounding the internal structure of the Sun, the characteristics of its atmosphere, and how the solar wind interacts with the rest of the solar system. To this end, the probe was placed at a vantage point some 1.5 million km away in a sunward direction from the Earth at the first lagrangian point. It was equipped with an arsenal of scientific instruments and cameras capable of probing the many aspects of our Sun.
SOHO recently marked its 25th year in orbit – a remarkable achievement considering that its primary mission was only meant to last two years. However, the mission’s prospects did not always appear so bright. In 1998, two and a half years after launch, the spacecraft lost contact with its handlers on Earth. Thankfully, after three months of tireless work, the team was able to re-establish contact with the probe. Yet this wasn’t the end of SOHO’s technical difficulties.
Soon after, the three gyroscopes used to maintain control of the spacecraft ceased functioning, harming the probe’s ability to maneuver accurately. Thankfully, in 1999 a software workaround was implemented that has allowed the hardy explorer to continue observing the Sun to this day, with incredible results.
During its time in space, SOHO has harvested 50 terabytes of data, which has fuelled the creation of 6,000 scientific papers. It also discovered over 4,000 wandering icy comets as they made their closest approach to our parent star.
With the help of its Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) instrument – which helps block the light glaring from the Sun’s surface, thus allowing a clearer view of the star’s atmosphere – SOHO has made roughly 30,000 observations of coronal mass ejections (CME).
During these violent solar outbursts, billions of tons of charged particles are hurled into space from the Sun’s super-heated atmosphere. These fast-moving particles pose a serious threat to orbiting satellites, and have the capacity to cripple vital infrastructure such as power and communication, and take out GPS services.
Beyond providing vital data to help scientists understand these solar storms, SOHO’s observations also serve as an early warning system allowing scientists to see the signs of an impending solar storm, and predict its impact up to three days in advance.
To celebrate SOHO’s 25th anniversary, scientists took decades of footage captured by the probe’s cameras between 1998 – 2020, and condensed it into a 47-minute time-lapse video. The footage shows the constant stream of particles that emanate out from our Sun to permeate the solar system, along with powerful CME events and smaller flares.
It is currently believed that SOHO will end its vigil in 2025, once a set of newer, more capable Sun-watching spacecraft have taken to space and begun their scientific duties. Until the day comes that the decommissioning order is sent, the spacecraft will continue working both on its own, and with other Sun-facing satellites to unravel the secrets of our star.
Scroll down to watch the time-lapse video of solar activity as captured by SOHO.