Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is a spacecraft launched in 1995 to study the sun. It is a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

SOHO Observatory

OrganizationESA, NASA
Wavelength regimeoptical through UV, also magnetic information
Orbit height1.5106 km (heliocentric, sunwards at L1)
Orbit period1 year
Launch date2 December 1995
Deorbit date(on going)
Mass1850 kg (610 kg payload)
GOLFcore oscillations
VIRGOcore oscillations
MDIoscillations and magnetic fields
SUMERcorona characteristics
CDScorona characteristics
EITUV, low corona
UVCSUV inner corona spectrograph
LASCOouter corona spectrograph
SWANsolar wind density
CELIASsolar wind ions
COSTEPsolar wind ions
ERNEsolar wind ions

The 610 kg SOHO spacecraft orbits the L1 Lagrange point, the point between the Earth and the Sun where the balance of the (larger) Sun's gravity and the (smaller) Earth's gravity is equal to the centripetal force needed for an object to have the same orbital period in its orbit around the Sun as the Earth, with the result that the object will stay in that relative position. It is about 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth. Gravity from the Sun is 2% (118 m/s) more than at the Earth (5.9 mm/s), while the reduction of required centripetal force is half of this (59 m/s). The sum of both effects is balanced by the gravity of the Earth, which is here also 177 m/s.

Although sometimes described as being at L1, the SOHO satellite is not exactly at L1 as this would make communication difficult (an antenna on Earth focused on SOHO would be "looking" right into the Sun) and is not a stable orbit. Rather it lies in the (constantly moving) plane which passes through L1 and is perpendicular to the line connecting the sun and the Earth. It stays in this plane, describing on the plane an elliptical orbit centered about L1. It orbits L1 once every six months, while L1 itself orbits the sun every 12 months as a direct consequence of the motion of the Earth. This keeps SOHO at a good position for communication with Earth at all times.

In normal operation the spacecraft transmits a continuous 200 kbit/s data stream of photographs and other measurements via the NASA Deep Space Network of receiving stations. SOHO's data about solar activity are used to predict solar flares, so electrical grids and satellites can be protected from their damaging effects.

In 2003 ESA reported the failure of one of the antenna steering motors, necessary for pointing the antenna to allow SOHO to direct the high bandwidth data at the Earth, might cause two to three week data-blackouts every three months.1 However, ESA and DSN scientists managed to use SOHO's low gain antenna together with the larger 34 and 70 metre DSN ground stations and judicious use of SOHO's data recorder to prevent any total loss of data, with only a slightly reduced data flow every three months.2


SOHO contains twelve main instruments, each capable of independently observing the sun or parts of the sun. These are:

  • Global Oscillations at Low Frequencies (GOLF) which measures velocity variations of the whole solar disk to explore the core of the sun.
  • Variability of Solar Irradiance (VIRGO) which measures oscillations and solar constant both of the whole solar disk and at low resolution, again exploring the core of the sun.
  • Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) which measures velocity and magnetic fields in the photosphere to learn about the convection zone which forms the outer layer of the interior of the sun and about the magnetic fields which control the structure of the corona. See also Helioseismology.
  • Solar UV Measurement of Emitted radiation (SUMER) which measures plasma flows, temperature and density in the corona.
  • Coronial Diagnostic Spectrometer (CDS) which measures density, temperature and flows in the corona.
  • Extreme UV Imaging Telescope (EIT) which studies the low coronial structure and activity.
  • UV Coronagraph and Spectrometer (UVCS) which measures density and temperature in the corona.
  • Large Angle Spectrometer Coronagraph (LASCO) which studies the structure and evolution of the corona
  • Solar Wind Anisotropies (SWAN) which uses telescopes sensitive to a characteristic wavelength of hydrogen to measure the solar wind mass flux, map the density of the heliosphere, and observe the large-scale structure of the solar wind streams.
  • Charge, Element, Isotope Analysis (CELIAS) which studies the ion composition of the solar wind.
  • Suprathermal & Energetic Particle Analyser (COSTEP) which studies the ion and electron composition of the solar wind.
  • Energetic Particle Analyser (ERNE) which studies the ion and electron composition of the solar wind.
Missing image
SOHO's instruments observe the Sun (upwards) while the high gain antenna between the solar panels sends results to the Earth (downwards in this diagram).
Large solar flare recorded by SOHO EIT304 instrument in the . (Animation (980kB MPEG)).
Large solar flare recorded by SOHO EIT304 instrument in the ultraviolet. (Animation (980kB MPEG)).

Observations from some of the instruments can be formatted as images, most of which are also readily available on the internet for either public or research use (see the official website ( Others such as spectra and measurements of particles in the solar wind do not lend themselves so readily to this. These images range in wavelength or frequency from optical () to extreme ultraviolet (UV). Images taken partly or exclusively with non-visible wavelengths are shown on the SOHO page and elsewhere in false color. Unlike many space-based and ground telescopes, there is no time allocated for proposals: due to the precise nature of this space observatory, there is no need for such a process.

See also: solar astronomy, space observatory


External links


fr:SoHO pl:SOHO fi:SOHO zh:SOHO衛星


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