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.
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.
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Hubble's 20th anniversary image shows a mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)
ACS Image of NGC 5866
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: W. Keel (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa)
Giant "Twisters" in the Lagoon Nebula
Credit: A. Caulet (ST-ECF, ESA) and NASA
The Spirograph Nebula (IC 418)
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
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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)
Credit: NASA, Andrew Fruchter and the ERO Team [Sylvia Baggett (STScI), Richard Hook (ST-ECF), Zoltan Levay (STScI)]
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)
Galaxy Triplet Arp 274
Arp 274 is a trio of galaxies. They appear to be partially overlapping in this image, but may be located at different distances. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Cassiopeia A: Colorful, Shredded Remains of Old Supernova
This youngest-known supernova remnant in our galaxy lies 10,000 light years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. The light from this exploding star first reached Earth in the 1600s. Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: R. Fesen (Dartmouth) and J. Morse (Univ. of Colorado)
Rainbow Image of the Egg Nebula
An onionskin-like structure of concentric dust shells surround a central, aging star. Twin beams of light radiate from the star and illuminate the usually invisible dust. Artificial colors show how light reflects off the particles and heads toward Earth. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: W. Sparks (STScI) and R. Sahai (JPL)
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
Plumes of glowing hydrogen blast from the central nucleus of M82. The pale, star-like objects are clusters of tens to hundreds of thousands of stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: J. Gallagher (University of Wisconsin), M. Mountain (STScI), and P. Puxley (National Science Foundation)
Picture Album: Hubble's Black and White View of the Universe
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: A. Nota (STScI/ESA)
The Eagle Has Risen: Stellar Spire in the Eagle Nebula
A billowing tower of gas and dust rises from the stellar nursery known as the Eagle Nebula. This small piece of the Eagle Nebula is 57 trillion miles long (91.7 trillion km). Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
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)
Nucleus of Galaxy Centaurus A
Credit: E.J. Schreier (STScI), and NASA
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HST ACS/WFC Image of NGC 3021
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Riess (STScI/JHU)
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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
Credits for X-ray Image: NASA/CXC/ASU/J. Hester et al. Credits for Optical Image: NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al.
Hubble's Sharpest View of the Orion Nebula
Thousands of stars are forming in the cloud of gas and dust known as the Orion nebula. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light. Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
Star-Forming Region S106
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
A String of 'Cosmic Pearls' Surrounds an Exploding Star
Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Challis and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
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)
Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)
The Cat's Eye Nebula: Dying Star Creates Fantasy-like Sculpture of Gas and Dust
The Cat's Eye Nebula, one of the first planetary nebulae discovered, also has one of the most complex forms known to this kind of nebula. Eleven rings, or shells, of gas make up the Cat's Eye. Credit: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: R. Corradi (Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, Spain) and Z. Tsvetanov (NASA)
Optical and X-ray Composite Image of SNR 0509-67.5
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Spiral Galaxy M74
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"X" Structure at Core of Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)
Credit: H. Ford (JHU/STScI), the Faint Object Spectrograph IDT, and NASA
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Credit: NASA, ESA, R. O'Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
A Giant Hubble Mosaic of the Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, all that remains of a tremendous stellar explosion. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104)
A brilliant white core is encircled by thick dust lanes in this spiral galaxy, seen edge-on. The galaxy is 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light years from Earth. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region
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)
Saturn's Double Light Show
Credit: NASA, ESA, and Jonathan Nichols (University of Leicester)