Status Report

UK Scientists Gear Up for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

By SpaceRef Editor
February 2, 2010
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UK Scientists Gear Up for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

UK scientists are gearing up for the launch of NASA’s latest space mission, set to launch from Cape Canaveral at 15:30 GMT on Tuesday, 9 February 2010. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) will deliver high resolution images of the Sun ten times better than the average High-Definition television to help scientists understand more about the Sun and its disruptive influence on services like communications systems on Earth. The UK, including scientists and engineers from the Science and Technology Facility Council’s (STFC’s) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), has provided essential expertise and technology to the mission.

SDO is the first mission in NASA’s Living with a Star (LWS) program. Its unique orbit will allow high resolution images to be recorded every three quarters of a second, providing in-depth information about the Sun’s complex magnetic fields and space weather generated by solar flares and violent eruptions from the Sun’s atmosphere known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).

“A CME can carry a billion tons of solar material into space at over a million kilometers per hour. Such events can expose astronauts to deadly particle doses, can disable satellites, cause power grid failures on Earth and disrupt communications,” said STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory scientist, Prof. Richard Harrison. “The Sun’s activity has a strong influence on the Earth. By studying solar activity, we hope to improve the prediction of solar storms and find new ways to protect technological systems here on Earth”.

The UK’s principal contribution is provision of the cameras for SDO and the data they produce. The high resolution cameras are at the heart of a set of US-led telescope systems which allow scientists to see features in the Sun’s atmosphere on very small scales in time and space, and in many wavelengths simultaneously. The telescopes also allow detailed studies of solar magnetic fields and even of the nature of the solar interior.

“The cameras will give us new views of the Sun at a faster rate than ever before, and in exquisite detail, enabling us to find out what makes the Sun so hot and what causes the explosions in the Sun’s atmosphere. This will produce more science data than any mission in NASA history,” said Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) scientist, Prof. Len Culhane.

RAL engineers designed and built the electronics systems for the six cameras on two of SDO’s instruments. Under contract from, Lockheed Martin, they developed the electronics boxes which control and read out the data from SDO’s cameras.

“Space missions require extremely light and compact, power-saving equipment which has to be built to stringent design and manufacturing requirements,” said RAL’s SDO Project Manager, Sarah Beardsley. “Inside each electronics box are four small, custom made video processing chips called ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuit). Each ASIC replaces a complete board of electronics which saves both space and power, and enables complex high speed parallel processing of data. The design of the electronics boxes has been so successful that we are now under contract to design, build and test the camera electronics for the SUVI instrument on NASA’s forthcoming GOES-R weather satellite.”

RAL’s engineers also worked closely together with e2v Ltd, the UK company tasked with developing the unique Charged Couple Devices for SDO’s cameras.

UK institutions involved in SDO are: STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, provision of camera electronics boxes and SDO scientific Co-Investigator team; Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), University College London, SDO scientific Co-Investigator team; University of Sheffield, SDO scientific Co-Investigator team; e2v Ltd, provision of CCDs.

Images Available from the STFC Press Office

Image 1: Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Image 2 and 3: The Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. The four AIA telescopes are at the top, and, mounted on the near panel are the HMI (right) and EVE (left). Credit: NASA.

Image 4: The complex solar atmosphere is revealed by ultraviolet images such as these taken from the NASA STEREO spacecraft. The UV radiation is generated by high-temperature plasma (charged gas) trapped in magnetic fields which we see as complex loop systems. Credit: STEREO-SECCHI consortium.

STFC Press Office Contacts

Bekky Stredwick
+44 (0)1235 445777 / Mob: +44 (0)7825861436

Lucy Stone
+44 (0)1235 445627 / Mob: +44 (0)7920870125

UK Science Contacts Available via the Press Office

Prof. Richard Harrison
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
SDO Co-Investigator

Dr. Sarah Beardsley
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
RAL Program Manager for the SDO project

Dr. Andre Fludra
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
SDO Co-Investigator

Dr. Nick Waltham
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
RAL SDO Project Director and Lead Engineer

Prof. Len Culhane
Mullard Space Science Laboratory
University College London
Scientific Co-Investigator

Prof. Mike Thompson
University of Sheffield
Scientific Co-Investigator

Launch and Timescales

SDO is planned to launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. During the first month after the launch the SDO instruments will undergo testing and commissioning. When the instrument performance has been verified, science observations will begin in early March (assuming launch on 9 February). The expected duration of the mission is 5 years.

Live Launch Event

Media are invited to an event at RAL Space to watch the launch live. For further information and to register your interest in attending the event, please contact Sarah Smart on +44 (0)1235 446433.


SDO is a NASA mission. In the UK institutions involved include: STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; e2v Ltd; UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory; University of Sheffield.

STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has provided the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory with the CCD Camera electronics systems for two of the three scientific instruments on SDO: Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) and Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI). In addition RAL, MSSL and Sheffield have scientific interest as SDO Co-Investigator groups.

STFC has a strong track record in other solar missions including SOHO, HINODE and STEREO.

SDO Remote Sensing Instruments

HMI (Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager) will make measurements of the minute motions of the solar photosphere to study solar oscillations to determine in detail what happens in the Sun’s interior. It will also measure the strength and the distribution of the magnetic field on the Sun’s surface, and allow scientists to calculate how the magnetic field fills the entire space around the Sun.

AIA (Atmospheric Imaging Assembly) will take images of the solar atmosphere in several wavelengths selected from the Extreme Ultraviolet and Ultraviolet wavelength range, invisible to human eye.

EVE (Extreme Ultraviolet Variablity Experiment) will measure the Sun’s energy output in Extreme-Ultraviolet wavelengths (this is called irradiance ) with unprecedented precision.

CCD Camera

Each camera on the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) instrument has a custom designed 16 million pixel Charged Coupled Device, a sensor which records the images taken by the cameras.

See for more information about SDO and its instruments.

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is a global security company that employs about 140,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services, from strengthening global security through defense system modernization, to air, marine and rail traffic management; and from military and civil command and control systems to building and launching satellites.

e2v Ltd

e2v Ltd specializes in the design and supply of specialized components and sub-systems to enable the world’s leading systems companies to deliver innovative solutions for medical and science, aerospace and defense and commercial and industrial markets.


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a United States government agency that is responsible for science and technology related to air and space.

Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

– The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
– The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
– The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The Council is a partner in the UK space program, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.

SpaceRef staff editor.