By: Mike Wall
Published: 06/01/2012 03:59 PM EDT on SPACE.com

A new photo from a NASA sun-watching spacecraft highlights a huge solar feature that looks a lot like the beloved Big Bird from the children's television show "Sesame Street."

The image, snapped today (June 1) by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) probe, actually shows a so-called coronal hole — an area where the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, is dark. But the resemblance to Big Bird, or one of his feathered kin anyway, is uncanny.

"I can't get over how much this looks like Big Bird — but it is a coronal hole on the sun," reads a Twitter post today by Camilla Corona SDO, the spacecraft's rubber chicken mascot.

big bird sun

The rubber chicken's Twitter feed is part of NASA's social media outreach efforts. Officials pasted a picture of the "Sesame Street" character next to the 'Big Bird' coronal hole for comparison.

The image of Big Bird on the sun is an example of pareidolia, which is the tendency of the human brain to recognize animals or other prominent shapes in vague or random images. This view of an elephant's head on Mars is another example.

Coronal holes are associated with "open" magnetic field lines, which extend out into interplanetary space rather than arc back to the solar surface. Coronal holes are often found near the sun's poles, Camilla added, and the high-speed solar wind — a stream of charged particles flowing from the sun's upper atmosphere — is known to originate in them.

The super-speedy solar wind from the 'Big Bird' coronal hole will reach Earth between June 5 and June 7, Camilla said.

After remaining relatively quiet for several years, the sun has entered an active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, firing off a number of strong flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — huge clouds of solar plasma — in the past several months.

CMEs that hit Earth inject large amounts of energy into the planet's magnetic field, spawning potentially devastating geomagnetic storms that can disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids for days, researchers say. These storms can also super-charge the northern and southern lights, generating brilliant shows for skywatchers at high latitudes.

Experts think the current cycle, known as Solar Cycle 24, will peak in 2013.

The $850 million SDO spacecraft launched in February 2010. The probe's five-year mission is the cornerstone of a NASA science program called Living with a Star, which aims to help researchers better understand aspects of the sun-Earth system that affect our lives and society.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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GALLERY: Hubble Telescope Images
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  • ACS Image of NGC 5866

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: W. Keel (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa)

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    Credit: A. Caulet (ST-ECF, ESA) and NASA

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    Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: Dr. Raghvendra Sahai (JPL) and Dr. Arsen R. Hajian (USNO)

  • 30 Doradus in Ultraviolet, Visible, and Red Light

    Credit: NASA, ESA, F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee

  • The Ant Nebula (Menzel 3): Fiery Lobes Protrude From Dying, Sun-like Star

    Image Credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: R. Sahai (Jet Propulsion Lab) and B. Balick (University of Washington)

  • The Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392)

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  • Dying Star HD 44179, the "Red Rectangle," Sculpts Rungs of Gas and Dust

    Credit: NASA; ESA; Hans Van Winckel (Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium); and Martin Cohen (University of California, Berkeley)

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  • Jet in Carina: WFC3 UVIS Full Field

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

  • Jet in Carina

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

  • Starburst Galaxy M82

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  • Picture Album: Hubble's Black and White View of the Universe

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  • Ring of Hot Blue Stars Pinwheels Around Yellow Nucleus of Hoag's Object Galaxy

    Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: Ray A. Lucas (STScI/AURA)

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    Credit: E.J. Schreier (STScI), and NASA

  • Saturn's Rings in Ultraviolet Light

    Credit: NASA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

  • HST ACS/WFC Image of NGC 3021

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)

  • NASA's Great Observatories Examine the Galactic Center Region

    Credit: NASA, ESA, SSC, CXC, and STScI

  • Interacting Spiral Galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163

    Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI)

  • Combined X-Ray and Optical Images of the Crab Nebula

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  • Hubble's Sharpest View of the Orion Nebula

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  • Star-Forming Region S106

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

  • A String of 'Cosmic Pearls' Surrounds an Exploding Star

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  • A Perfect Storm of Turbulent Gases in the Omega/Swan Nebula (M17)

    Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Hester (ASU)

  • Three Moons Cast Shadows on Jupiter

    Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

  • The Helix Nebula: a Gaseous Envelope Expelled By a Dying Star

    Credit: NASA, ESA, C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University), M. Meixner and P. McCullough (STScI)

  • "Light Echo" Illuminates Dust Around Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon)

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  • The Cat's Eye Nebula: Dying Star Creates Fantasy-like Sculpture of Gas and Dust

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  • Optical and X-ray Composite Image of SNR 0509-67.5

    Science Credit: NASA, ESA, and B. Schaefer and A. Pagnotta (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge) Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CXC, SAO, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and J. Hughes (Rutgers University)

  • Spiral Galaxy M74

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  • "X" Structure at Core of Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

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  • Starburst Cluster Shows Celestial Fireworks

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  • A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula

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  • The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104)

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    Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

  • A Galactic Spectacle

    Credit: NASA, ESA, SAO, CXC, JPL-Caltech, and STScI Acknowledgment: J. DePasquale (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and B. Whitmore (STScI)

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