Back in October 2006, NASA launched two STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) spacecraft. Using the Moon’s gravity for a gravitational slingshot, the two nearly identical spacecraft, STEREO-A and STEREO-B, split up to circulate the sun and after a 4 year journey the have finally arrived at opposite sides of the sun and are able to give us a complete 3d look at the sun.
Space weather forecasting
Now thanks to these 3d images of the sun, researchers will be able to create more accurate weather forecasts and provide earlier and more accurate warnings for potentially damaging coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that can impact aircraft navigation systems, power grids and satellites.
Previously, an active sunspot could emerge on the far side of the Sun before the Sun’s rotation turned that region toward Earth, spitting flares and clouds of plasma with little warning.
As part of NASA’s ‘Solar Shield’ project, the NOAA is already using 3D STEREO models of CME’s to improve space weather forecasts, but the full Sun view should improve these forecasts even more. And the forecasting benefits aren’t just limited to Earth. The global 3D model of the Sun also allows researchers to track solar storms heading for other planets, which is important for NASA missions to Mercury, Mars and even asteroids.
In conjunction with NASA’s Earth-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory, the STEREO-A and STEREO-B probes should be able to image the entire globe of the Sun for the next eight years. Therefore, these initial images are just the beginning of what should be some truly stellar images.