Thursday, November 03, 2011

Hinode's First Light and Five More Years

On October 28, 2006, the Hinode solar mission was at last ready. The spacecraft launched on September 22, but such missions require a handful of diagnostics before the instruments can be turned on and collect what is called “first light.”

Hopes were high. Hinode had the potential to provide some of the highest resolution images of the sun the world had ever seen - as well as help solve such mysteries as why the sun's atmosphere is a thousand times hotter than its surface and how the magnetic fields roiling through the sun create dramatic explosions able to send energy to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

The X-ray telescope (XRT) began taking images on October 23, the Solar Optical Telescope (SOT) opened its front door on October 25, and the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) started collecting spectroscopic images on October 28.

The images were beautiful, the data good; first light science had been achieved.

And so started five years in the life of a solar mission that would offer unprecedented details into the dynamics of the sun. Hinode – the word means "sunrise" in Japanese – is a mission led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) with collaboration from NASA and other partners in the US, Europe, and Japan. Its instruments produce fantastic detail of both visible and magnetic features on the sun's surface and in its atmosphere, the corona. Such detail was unprecedented at its launch and still prized today. Hinode has helped find the origin of the solar wind, discovered potential candidates for how the corona gets so hot, and provided images of the complex magnetic structures looping up and out of active regions on the sun.

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