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The outer layer of the sun's atmosphere, called the corona, is hotter than the solar surface, but its tenuous light gets swamped by the much brighter solar disk. Historically, researchers have studied the corona during eclipses, when the moon blocks out the disk and reveals the corona, or by using an instrument called a coronagraph, which similarly blocks out the sun's disk.
However, eclipses are relatively rare and don't last long, and coronagraphs occlude the inner parts of the corona. Now, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is helping scientists overcome these problems, yielding unprecedented views of the innermost corona 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The instrument aboard SDO that makes this possible is called the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly. AIA's images highlight the ever-changing connections between gas captured by the sun's magnetic field and gas escaping into interplanetary space, researchers said.