NARRATOR: Energy reaching the sun's surface doesn't just result in sunlight. It can also trigger solar storms.
Understanding the sun's destructive power requires 24-hour precision surveillance, something that, until recently, was impossible to achieve.
SOLAR DYNAMICS OBSERVATORY LAUNCH: Five, four…go for main engine start…three, two, one, zero, and ignition and lift-off of the Atlas 5 with the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
NARRATOR: February, 2010: NASA launches its most sophisticated solar satellite yet, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or S.D.O., for short.
SOLAR DYNAMICS OBSERVATORY LAUNCH: Coming up on Mach 1.
NARRATOR: S.D.O. is the first satellite to deliver almost continuous super-high-resolution coverage of our nearest star, giving researchers unprecedented access to the sun and its secrets.
PHILLIP CHAMBERLIN (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center): The first day was very exciting. We knew we were going to open our doors to actually let the sunlight into the instrument for the first time.
TODD HOEKSEMA: We started looking at the first pictures, and it was almost in focus, and as soon as we focused it, it was just beautiful.
NARRATOR: The new images reveal the sun like never before: an alien landscape, where strange structures ebb and flow; giant tornadoes, hundreds of thousands of miles high that could easily engulf the earth; and super-heated bubbles of plasma, the size of Alaska.
KAREL SCHRIJVER: When I look at the pictures, I think they're really beautiful. I'm struck by the dynamics of it. Things are changing all the time, no matter where you look. I'm also pretty daunted by the complexity of it all.
NARRATOR: That's not surprising. Previous satellites only revealed a portion of the sun in high resolution, now they see it in mind-boggling detail.
KAREL SCHRIJVER: Now, in order to look at the Solar Dynamics Observatory images we're bringing in every day, we've built this very special wall, which is nine high-definition television screens together, that can display these images, so that the instrument and the display system together are an entirely new way of looking at the sun.
HOLLY GILBERT: We can see all the details of what is going on. And that is really a quantum leap in solar physics, being able to see all of that all the time: a continuous eye on the sun.
NARRATOR: One of the most important aspects of S.D.O. is its ability to see sunlight across a range of wavelengths, the equivalent of looking at things glowing at different temperatures. Our eyes are most sensitive to sunlight glowing at around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature the sun's surface looks almost featureless. But at hotter wavelengths, normally invisible, a far more dynamic picture emerges.
The February 15, 2011, storm is a perfect example. In this repeating image, at around 90,000 degrees Fahrenheit, S.D.O. captures just a ghostly trace of the C.M.E. wave. But, at just over a million degrees, the super-hot plasma rippling away from the eye of the storm is much clearer. This allows researchers to see coronal mass ejection waves evolving across the entire sun.
HOLLY GILBERT: This is an absolutely amazing time for solar physics, because of these beautiful high resolution images that allow us to understand better the physics behind what's going on when solar storms erupt.