Big Data, Big Sun, Big Art

In orbit high above New Mexico, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite spent its sixth birthday doing what it has always done: staring at the sun, with its instruments recording an acrobatic display of super-hot swirling gases and dancing flares.

Every second, day and night, it watches at this solar ballet and beams a constant stream of images down to Earth. These images of our active resident star some 93 million miles away made their public debut on the large visualization wall at the Hunt Library on Feb. 11, the sixth anniversary of SDO’s launch into space.

In an event presented by NCSU Libraries and the College of Sciences, Henry “Trae” Winter, an astrophysicist from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), unveiled the “Dynamic Sun,” a video installation that visualizes the activity of our sun in near-real-time.

Viewers, shielded by NC State-red-colored sunglasses, were able to view the sun in ways our eyes normally can’t perceive it. The SDO satellite records the sun’s activities at different wavelengths of light, resulting in spectacular images painted in shades of green, red and purple. Sunspots and solar flares spew gaseous fountains into space at lengths of several Earths and heated at millions of degrees.

The view of the sun is almost as impressive as the amount of data collected by SDO that are used to generate the Dynamic Sun visualization. Winter explained that nearly two terabytes of data are sent to Earth by the satellite every day; that’s enough to hold nearly four years worth of music. Winter told the audience that these data are crucial to the prediction of solar storms that can interfere with communication and GPS technologies here on Earth.

In addition to the public event, Winter and colleague Peter Cheimets, an engineer at SAO, gave a seminar on Feb. 12 at D.H. Hill Library. They shared insights with faculty and students about the process by which they transform big solar data into big art, one that utilizes the same graphic components designers rely on for video games.

The Dynamic Sun is one of several solar exhibits that Winter has created for both art and science museums. He’s passionate about combining art and science. From his perspective, they aren’t too different from one another.

“Art and science are only separated by language. In science, this is jargon,” he said.

Rather than limiting the output of SDO to only those astrophysicists who can understand the jargon and technical data, Winter wants to make it accessible to everyone. “Most people experience the world primarily through sight,” he said. “That is why we make these images and movies, so that we can comprehend what the data are trying to tell us.”

Winter hopes the exhibit will give audiences an opportunity to view the sun “in a new light” and perhaps inspire them to start their own solar studies. “Anyone can do science and investigate. The world is open once you start, even if you don’t want to be a solar astrophysicist,” he said, later adding, “But you should, because it’s awesome.”

The “Dynamic Sun” was shown exclusively on the Commons Wall at the Hunt Library through March 13 and is now part of the regular visualization rotation.

David Dickson is a graduating senior studying meteorology at NC State.