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Satellite Makes Successful Launch, Will Study Sun

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA's most advanced study of the sun and space weather is under way after Thursday's successful launch of the $850 million Solar Dynamics Observatory mission.

Making its second attempt after being grounded Wednesday by high winds, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket rumbled into the blue sky and wispy white clouds at 10:23 a.m., sending ripples through the clouds as it reached supersonic speeds on an eastward arc over the Atlantic Ocean.

Nearly two hours later, the 6,500-pound satellite called SDO separated from the rocket's Centaur upper stage and spread out its solar arrays, beginning a life in space expected to last five to 10 years.

"It was really pretty spectacular," said Madhulika Guhathakurta, SDO program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We were all really eager to see this take off."

The launch had been delayed from 2008 because of spacecraft problems and then a wait for a launch vehicle.

From a perch 22,300 miles above Earth, SDO's three science instruments will soon begin shooting pictures of the sun and recording sound waves and radiation, all more rapidly and in better resolution than ever before.

The goal is to understand the physics behind the formation of the sun's magnetic field and explosions of energy and matter that can influence Earth's atmosphere and electronic systems.

Solar flares and other space weather can disrupt communications systems, cause power outages and damage satellites.

Scientists hope to more accurately predict those events.

"There's so much in the sun that we do understand, but there's so much we don't understand," said Tom Woods of the University of Colorado, the principal investigator for an instrument that will measure extreme ultraviolet radiation.

"We have good measurements today, but these are going to be outstanding, really surpassing everything we've done in the past."

The quality of the satellite's pictures are said to be 10 times better than high-definition TV, and the quantity of data continuously beamed to a New Mexico ground station equivalent to downloading a half-million songs daily.

Thursday's launch was the first for NASA's Living With a Star program, which plans to operate four spacecraft by 2018. The next is targeted for launch from Cape Canaveral in 2012.

"We have the first born right now," Guhathakurta said of SDO. "But it's just not the first born, it's also the central piece of all the other missions. This is the mission that's going to provide a very comprehensive view of the sun."

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