This weekend, you should probably go stare at the sun.
While this would usually be an ill-advised thing to do, thanks to a recently released time-lapse representing the sun’s solar cycle, you could do this safely while social distancing from the convenience of your home.
In February 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a first-of-its-kind spacecraft with one job to do: study the sun.
Now, using some of the 425 million photos the SDO has collected so far, NASA has created a stunning time-lapse depicting the sun’s solar cycle, an 11-year-long period bookended by the flipping of the star’s magnetic poles.
The hour-long video starts at a point in the sun’s solar cycle called the “solar minimum.” This period is relatively calm, with just the occasional burst of bright light signaling some kind of solar activity, a sunspot or solar flare, for example.
The number and intensity of these bursts rise in the video until they peak near their midpoint — that’s when the cycle reaches the “solar maximum” — and then start subsiding once again.
When the SDO was established, NASA didn’t expect the spacecraft to grab this complete solar cycle — it was only designed for a five-year mission.