Explore the sun on your desktop with Helioviewer

June 13th, 2011

New interactive visualization tools developed by the NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Helioviewer Project allow scientists and the general public to explore images of the sun captured by NASA and ESA solar observing spacecraft. This week, Geeked On Goddard takes a close look at these new tools, explaining how they work and what you can do with them. Web application desktop

The desktop

[Post 1 of 5]

Last week on June 7, Goddard solar scientist Jack Ireland woke up around 6 am and checked the website to find out what people were looking at on the sun. He saw that 36 minutes earlier, some anonymous person on the Internet had posted a video of an enormous eruption on the sun’s surface.

“I checked it out, and thought it was spectacular and unlike anything I had ever seen before,” Ireland recalls. Ireland sent out an email alerting his colleagues (and Geeked On Goddard) of the event.

Hello All,

Found this event on this morning, courtesy of our users. I thought you might be interested in it. The event is still in progress right now.  Quite spectacular.


[Unfortunately, that anonymous user took down the Helioviewer-made video of the eruption that Ireland’s email originally linked to, so we don’t know who he or she was.]

The solar eruption that wowed the world. . .

The eruption wowed the world. . .

Over the next 24 hours, the dramatic fountaining prominence eruption amazed the world — and showed the power of Helioviewer, which Ireland has played a key role in creating.

If you’ve never heard of Helioviewer, go right now to the website. That glowing orange-yellow ball you see is the sun as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. You see what the spacecraft sees — as recently as 20 minutes ago. And that’s just the start.

You can change “channels” on the sun, observing its churning surface from different sensors on the spacecraft. You can mix the channels together to create unique new images, revealing features and processes occurring at different temperatures and locations.

The Helioviewer Project’s primary mission is to provide innovative new tools to solar scientists. But aspiring “citizen scientists” are also welcome. For example, a recently added feature allows you to create short time-lapse videos of the sun and then upload them quickly on YouTube — or save a copy for yourself on your computer. (The unknown user who discovered the June 7 prominence used the YouTube uploader to report his finding.)

How it all started
The Helioviewer Project began at Goddard in 2004-2005. It is a partnership of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The effort has produced two complementary tools: the website and an installable piece of software called JHelioviewer.

The Helioviewer Project team at Goddard consists of Ireland and computer programmer Keith Hughitt, both based in the Heliophysics Science Division. Summer interns have also contributed at various times.

Ireland conceived of Helioviewer in 2004 and started building a prototype. ESA’s Daniel Müller, the deputy project scientist for the ESA/NASA Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), started working on JHelioviewer  in 2007 while based at Goddard. Hughitt joined them in 2008. Together, they started the Helioviewer Project, which combines the efforts of and JHelioviewer, as well as various “back end” programming on the servers that help power the front-end visualization tools that users actually interact with. Müller returned to Europe in 2010, and ESA officially released the JHelioviewer software late that same year.

Seeing like a satellite
Ireland says the motivation for creating both and JHelioviewer was to make it easier to access the wealth of scientific data from various satellite sources.

“It occurred to me that we have a lot of different websites that visualize different observations about a single object, the sun,” he says. “Having many disparate websites and browse tools didn’t make too much sense.”

Ireland also just wanted to see the sun as an integrated whole, the way SOHO and SDO see it. He remembers one day watching two different SOHO images of the sun — one with the sun itself filling the monitor, and another showing the solar disk in the middle of its much more extended outer atmosphere.

“But what you actually see and what your physical understanding is that the sun is in the middle of this bigger space. So why couldn’t we see that? I mean, that’s what’s out there. My original motivation was just to try to reproduce on a web site, somehow, everything of what the spacecraft see.”

To do so called for a tool that would superimpose different images on the same space, in perfect alignment. That initial concept became Helioviewer.

The JHViewer desktop.

The JHelioviewer desktop.

Complementary tools
Helioviewer currently draws on image data from SDO as well as more than a million images collected by SOHO, which became operational in 1996. A limited set of images from the twin STEREO spacecraft are now available, and that access will expand with time.

To get started, first try the Web-based It allows you to browse images, zoom in, make a screen shot, or create a short video of up to a week of solar activity, using up to 300 different solar images.

JHelioviewer is standalone software written in the Java computer language, hence the moniker JHelioviewer. To start, download it from the site and install it on your computer. Versions are available for Mac, Windows, or Linux operating systems.

JHelioviewer has more powerful capabilities than, but the tools complement each other, Hughitt explains.

“The Web app is very easy to start using and does not require installing any software, while JHelioviewer, on the other hand, requires a little more setup but has a more flexible movie streaming system and supports some basic image processing that is not yet available on the web version. The projects are meant to be complimentary efforts; think Google Maps and Google Earth.”

TOMORROW: A closer look at and its features.

LEARN MORE (Web app)

A collection of video highlights from 2011 (so far) created by users.

See a video made by “citizen scientist” LudzikLegoTechnics on YouTube.

The Helioviewer Project Wiki:

JHelioviewer (downloadable software)

Read a Web feature about JHelioviewer and its capabilities

The JHelioviewer online handbook

JHelioviewer video tutorial on YouTube HD

ESA Web feature about JHelioviewer.

OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.

  1. No comments yet.
Comments are closed.