Feature Story

A Provocative Look at Our Life-Giving Star

A dramatically appealing scientific tool developed by Smithsonian astrophysicists for studying the Sun is now dazzling the public.

Stunning.  Amazing.  Absorbing.  Seductive….  These are the things people say when they meet the Sun, up close and personal, courtesy of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.  This dramatically appealing scientific tool—developed by astrophysicists for studying the Sun—is now dazzling the public at two Smithsonian museums.

On the wall of HD video monitors, you can see all sorts of interesting things happening on the Sun. “Eruptive events—like solar flares and mass ejections—bubbling, granulation, loop formations, and gas flows—you can see all these solar phenomena in high definition,” says Dr. Mark Weber, one of the creators of the Solar Wall. “It has a ‘wow factor’ that communicates with people on a visceral level.”

“On a tour of SAO, we happened to pass by the room with the Solar Wall,” said Matilda McQuaid, Deputy Curatorial Director at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “We were just flabbergasted when we saw it. We immediately went inside—we were absolutely intrigued and so drawn to it.”

The Solar Wall serves as a tool both for studying the Sun and communicating its dynamic nature to the public. The other architect of the Solar Wall is Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter.  “This is one of those cases where scientists have developed a tool that we use to do research,” says Winter, “and now we are extending that tool to make it into a public exhibit display.”

The Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched by NASA in 2010, is the origin of the image data. One of the SDO’s three instruments is the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, which the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory partnered with Lockheed Martin to develop.

Loop sprays
Loop sprays

The Atmospheric Imaging Assembly provides nearly continuous high-resolution observations of the Sun in multiple passbands of the extreme ultraviolet spectrum, sending back over three terabytes of uncompressed data each day. “All this is information is being sent to us in a series of 1s and 0s,” says Winter. “So, we’re taking images created in a wavelength of light that our eyes can’t see, and applying a series of color tables to them so our eyes and brains can make sense of these images and the information they contain.”

Several years ago, Eva Pell, then Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian, was intrigued by SAO’s Solar Wall and the possibility to share it with the public on the National Mall. With a Level Two grant from the Consortia and funding from NASA, the Dynamic Sun Video Wall at the National Air and Space Museum debuted on March 18, 2015. In a separate initiative, a similar Solar Wall appeared as the centerpiece of the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition Tools: Extending our Reach, which was on view from December 12, 2014, to May 25, 2015.

The Solar Wall at NASM is a series of six high-definition TV screens, two wide by three high, each 47'' along the diagonal and with very slim bezels. “You can’t really contain both the high resolution of these images and their large size on any single HD screen,” explains Winter. The images and movies will span over the multiple screens, which will be driven by a specially designed computer that keeps everything in synchronization.

“We are providing daily movies of the Sun to the National Air and Space Museum,” says Winter. “We do all the processing here at the Center for Astrophysics, make the movies, and then ship them to the Museum each night.”

The technical challenges of creating the exhibit for NASM have been considerable, from the logistics of sending the data, to synchronizing the movie over multiple screens, to creating a video wall at a lower price point than available commercially. Not to mention the challenges of installing a new exhibition at a museum that is open seven days a week and hosts seven million visitors a year. 

Another set of challenges relates to communication.  “Along with people being wowed and amazed by the wall, we’re trying to use these teachable moments to convey information about the Sun without being over-confusing,” says Weber. “Creating this learning experience is something that we’re working on very hard with our colleagues from the education department.”

A Consortia Level One grant made it possible to bring a group of astronomy enthusiasts to SAO for a focus group run by their in-house science education group. They were able to gather ideas on the best way to optimize the impact of the video wall and what sorts of things could be shown on the video wall.

The main movie of the Sun will contain 24 hours of solar activity compressed into 2.5 minutes in such high definition that large phenomena and small features will be available in stunning detail. There will also be an image of the Earth to scale to demonstrate the immense size of the Sun. “You could tell people, ‘Oh, the Sun has a volume of a million Earths,’” says Winter,  “but that doesn’t really affect them on an emotional basis. But being able to see this comparison on the screen is something we found to be very, very powerful and very, very effective.”

A forecast of space weather will also be incorporated into the presentation. This will allow people viewing solar phenomena from the day before to connect it with actual forecasts of what is happening here at Earth, such as the appearance of aurora. Another segment will focus on a particular phenomenon, such as an event of mass ejection, with brief explanatory text. The entire presentation will be a loop of around five minutes.

SAO Display in situ
Visualization of the Solar Wall in place at the National Air and Space Museum

At the National Air and Space Museum, the Dynamic Solar Video Wall will be at the base of the Skylab exhibit, where a timeline tells the story of solar observation from Skylab to the Solar Dynamics Observatory. “This provides context,” says David DeVorkin, Curator of the History of Astronomy and Space Science, “and the Solar Wall will be the dynamic portion of the display.”

“Skylab had the Apollo telescope mount, which was a battery of high-powered telescopes that viewed the Sun in the 1970s—’73, ’74,” says DeVorkin. “Skylab gave us our first really high-definition look at the Sun, showing the importance of simultaneous observations in different wavelength ranges. The Solar Dynamics Observatory has finally realized that goal, and at a level of quality and resolution far beyond that of the instrument on Skylab.”

“For the next four or five years, we’ll be entering the phase when you get the largest storm-type events on the Sun, like flares, mass ejections and powerful brightenings associated with radiation outbursts, so every day visitors will be able to see all kinds of different things happening on the Sun,” says Weber. “We expect the whole gamut of things to be happening during the period of this exhibit.”

“In our modern age, society is very dependent upon technology in Earth orbit—GPS satellites, communication satellites—not just for our military, but for the way we all live our lives and carry on our business—and these electronics can be blown out by solar storms,” Weber says. “So, understanding the nature of these storms, predicting them better, understanding them when they arrive, understanding how they can affect our electronics, being able to put the satellites into safeholds, these are all important things.”

“The Sun is a laboratory for basic physical processes to help us understand how our world works, how basic physics works, and how the universe works,” says Winter.

Besides its stunning appearance, it was the Solar Wall’s origins as a scientific tool that attracted the attention of the Cooper-Hewitt. A Solar Wall similar to the one at NASM was the centerpiece in their exhibition Tools: Extending our Reach which ran from December 12, 2014 through May 25, 2015. 

According to Cara McCarty, Curatorial Director at the Cooper-Hewitt, “In a very poignant way the Solar Wall captures the whole thesis behind this exhibition. It is the perpetual quest of human beings to keep exploring and pushing ourselves and learning more about who we are. And this is the closest we’ve been able to get to the Sun.”

McQuaid and McCarty first saw the Solar Wall in January 2012 in conjunction with a Level One grant from the Consortia. “We applied for the grant in order to travel from New York City to Smithsonian locations in Washington, DC, and Boston to look at their collections and see what kinds of objects we could include in the Tools exhibition,” says McQuaid.

“It was a totally serendipitous discovery,” says McCarty, “but we went totally gaga when we saw it. It is so seductive, and so huge. We had never seen the solar surface before; it was like looking at a vat of orange lava. We knew immediately that we absolutely had to have it for the exhibition.”

The Tools exhibition was around 6,000 square feet. The Solar Wall was at end of the exhibition’s long central axis, serving as the backdrop for many of the exhibition’s vistas. Cooper-Hewitt’s Solar Wall was updated daily with movies supplied by SAO.

“Cara and I both feel that one of the biggest benefits of our Consortia project is not only the exhibition, but getting to know our colleagues in other parts of the Smithsonian,” says McQuaid. “It opened up our eyes to the wonderful things that the Smithsonian has that people don’t always see, including the science behind the scenes. It’s important to understand how that science can also be very much part of design.”