Imaging the Sun in 3D

NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) primarily examines coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. These explosive eruptions from the Sun can propel more than 10 billion tons of the Sun’s magnetized atmosphere into interplanetary space at speeds exceeding 3 million mph (5 million kph). When they impact Earth’s magnetosphere, CMEs can produce severe geomagnetic storms and other space weather that can interfere with — and even destroy — satellite operations and communications, shut down power systems on the ground and endanger the lives of astronauts.


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While scientists long appreciated the power and importance of coronal mass ejections (CMEs), they didn’t fully understand how they form, what their structure and sizes are, or how they evolve as they blast off the Sun and propagate through space.

Launched in 2006, the STEREO mission is addressing these unknowns and providing advance warnings for space weather forecasting. STEREO is the third mission in NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probes program, answering fundamental questions about the nature of space and the flow of matter and energy throughout the solar system.

The mission consists of two nearly identical space-based observatories: STEREO-A and STEREO-B, both built by APL. One spacecraft is placed ahead of Earth’s orbit while the other is placed behind, allowing the probes to capture 3D images of the Sun and interplanetary space to study the origin, propagation and evolution of CMEs. This configuration also enabled investigations of the 3D structure of the magnetic fields in the corona as well as the first studies of the entire Sun, including its far side.

Communications with STEREO-B were officially lost in September 2014. STEREO-A remains operational.


•	Full Sun map of the solar corona at roughly 144,000 F (80,000 C) acquired simultaneously by the two STEREO EUV imagers. Before STEREO, this capability was available for Earth observations only.
Complete map of the Sun's lower solar corona at roughly 144,000 F (80,000 C), acquired simultaneously by the two STEREO extreme-ultraviolet imagers. Before STEREO, this image would have been impossible, since observations from Earth alone can't capture the Sun's entire surface.

Spacecraft and Instruments

Each STEREO spacecraft is equipped with four instrument suites, which include an extreme ultraviolet light imager of the solar disk, two white-light coronagraphs to see details around the Sun’s bright surface, two heliospheric imagers of solar-originating structures flowing through interplanetary space, multiple instruments that measure the 3D distribution of plasma in the solar wind and the characteristics of other energetic particles coming from the Sun to better under the origins of CMEs, and a radio burst tracker that follows radio disturbances from the Sun.

Rendering of the STEREO spacecraft observing the Sun
An interactive, 3D rendering of a STEREO spacecraft. Click on the image and drag to see all angles of the spacecraft.

Results and Expectations

STEREO captured more than 13 million images of the Sun, providing detailed, 3D views of at least 4,500 CMEs and other solar eruptive events. STEREO-A continues to provide early warnings of solar active regions responsible for eruptive events before those regions come into Earth’s view.


3D reconstruction of a CME and its shock
3D reconstruction of a coronal mass ejection (magenta) and its shock (yellow)
The multi-temperature of the solar corona revealed by a two-temperature composite: 2.5 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 million degrees Celsius) and roughly 144,000 F (80,000 C)
The multitemperature of the solar corona revealed by a two-temperature composite: 2.5 million degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 million degrees Celsius) (silver) and roughly 144,000 F (80,000 C) (red).


Mission Facts

October 25, 2006

Project Manager
David Grant, Johns Hopkins APL

Program Scientist
Madhulika Guhathakurta, NASA Headquarters

Project Scientist
Therese Kucera, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center