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NASA's Sun-Earth viewer

With all the attention presently being given to the good (and bad) news coming from Mars, and fresh talk of returning to the Moon, it's easy to overlook the two most obvious bodies in our solar system - the Sun (look up), and the Earth (look down). Fortunately, even while much of its attention is directed elsewhere, NASA is still actively observing events on "hearth and home," and examining how developments on the former affect the latter. The Sun-Earth Viewer brings a taste of this science to the web, and gives the rest of us a chance to see what NASA's been looking at.

A component of NASA's Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum (created to "increase science literacy and focus attention on the active Sun and its effects on Earth"), the Sun-Earth Viewer doesn't have any sort of introductory page of its own, but that doesn't create any problems.

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Despite being dropped into the middle of the presentation, visitors will immediately be able to find their way around thanks to an elegantly intuitive and efficient interface - just don't be surprised if it takes a while to download. A Flash-based application, each of the Viewer's sections will preload various options when first accessing the page in order to provide a relatively seamless experience. But until everything's in place, things might be a bit sluggish.

The first of four categories featured when you arrive at the site is Images, which hosts a collection of (a dozen) thumbnail photographs of the Sun and Earth. Taken from space and from ground based observatories, each frame in this section presents its subject in a different way. (Variations include visible white-light and ultraviolet views of the Sun, and mappings of auroral activity on the home planet.)

As each thumbnail is selected, a scrollable -and printable- background text is loaded into an adjacent window, and a larger version of the image is loaded into the interactive viewer. Here, visitors can zoom and pan their way around the selected picture, while a mid-thumbnail continuously keeps track of the selected area in relation to the full frame. (This arrangement also allows surfers to click-and drag the viewing area around the full image.)

In the case of Sun shots, the relative size of the Earth is also displayed next to the viewer's controls as visitors zoom in on the star's surface. Finally, if you're particularly attracted to a specific shot, full size (1024 x 1024 pixel) copies of the images are available for download.

(While the website's title bar makes reference to "Live" images, I didn't see evidence of anything like an extreme ultraviolet solar webcam. At least some content seems to be updated on an hourly basis though, so those inclined to make return trips will probably be rewarded with new material.)

While the aesthetic impact of the Images section may favor the artistic side of the brain, Illustrations will satisfy the intellect, as it includes much more detailed, albeit artificial, depictions of its subject matter. While the interface is identical to Images, the twelve thumbnails here include such options as cutaways of the Sun's interior, and depictions of Earth's defense against electromagnetic radiation.

Visualizations puts the real and the artificial into motion, with a handful of short video clips (12 to 65 seconds - despite what the index may say), again, accompanied by text explanations. (The Coronal Mass Ejection clip looks like a trailer for a space disaster film, though Earth puts up with these assaults on a regular basis.)

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Finally, Interviews presents more than 30 video segments, with experts explaining such subjects as the Sun's rank in the Milky Way (apparently we're, "a bit above average"), and the Northern Lights (which can occasionally be seen as far south as Florida). Less scientific, but no less interesting, is a series exploring the Sun's place in Lakota culture, including a detailed explanation of the Sun Dance ceremony.

It's all too easy to take Sol and Terra for granted, but let's face it, tidal waves and disrupted orbits aside, these are the only two bodies in the solar system that we really need (ok, the moon's gravity is no slouch either, kind of like Canada and the US). The Sun-Earth viewer gives the relationship between these two the respect it deserves, and reminds us that gee-whiz space science isn't limited to the Red Planet and beyond.

The Sun-Earth Viewer can be found at http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/sunearthday/media_viewer/flash.html.


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