The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has eclipse seasons twice a year near each equinox. For three weeks, the SDO orbit has the Earth pass between SDO and the sun.
updated 9/15/2011 1:19:29 PM ET 2011-09-15T17:19:29

For the next three weeks, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite will be poised to watch the Earth block out the sun as part of the spacecraft's twice-yearly eclipse season, and the spacecraft has already snapped its first stunning image for the year.

The new photo shows the first eclipse from SDO's Fall 2011 eclipse season, which began Sunday. In the picture, the glowing orb of the sun is partially blocked by the dim shadow of Earth in between the spacecraft and the star.

"For three weeks near midnight Las Cruces time our orbit has the Earth pass between SDO and the sun," SDO scientists wrote in a statement. "These eclipses can last up to 72 minutes in the middle of an eclipse season."

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Two antennas near Las Cruces, N.M., are dedicated to round-the-clock reception of data from the spacecraft, which is managed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

This eclipse season for SDO is set to run until Oct. 4. While the season provides some fun images, it necessitates some breaks in the spacecraft's ability to study solar weather through continual observations of the full sun. The eclipses result from SDO's particular orbit around the Earth.

"The continuous contact with the ground station our orbit allows was judged to outweigh the loss of some images," SDO scientists wrote.

SDO was launched in February 2010 on a mission to monitor space weather and study the sun's atmosphere. The spacecraft is equipped with three instruments to observe the sun simultaneously and make measurements of its variability.

The sun is getting more lively these days as it nears a maximum around 2013 in its 11-year cycle of magnetic activity. Solar flares and solar storms are likely to increase in the coming years as our star ramps up.

SDO scientists study these flares in hopes of being able to better predict when they will arise. When Earth is caught off guard, the cloud of charged particles sometimes spat toward our planet during a solar storm can damage satellites and infrastructure on the ground.

You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: Best eclipse images

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  1. Fun in the '50s

    Two women share a safety filter to watch a solar eclipse on June 30, 1954, from London's Fleet Street. (Evening Standard / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eyes on the sky

    Members of the British Astronomers Association set up their telescopes and cameras in preparation for the August 1999 total solar eclipse. Observers should never look directly at a partial solar eclipse through telescopes or binoculars without protective measures. (Ian Waldie / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Totality in the '20s

    Londoners peer at a solar eclipse through smoked glass on June 29, 1927. Today, experts say the best way to see a partial solar eclipse is by using special filters or an indirect viewing system such as a pinhole camera. The total phase of the eclipse can be seen safely by the naked eye, but if even a bit of the sun's disk is showing, gazing at the eclipse too long could damage the eyes. (H. F. Davis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ga-ga over glasses

    Children attending the Helston School Eclipse Science Camp in England try out their protective glasses on the day before the total solar eclipse of Aug. 11, 1999. The school organized a project to send science activity packs and safety information to other schools throughout Britain. (Russell Boyce / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Shadow watching

    Chinese viewers watch the sun being blocked by the moon in Gaotai, Gansu province, during a solar eclipse on Aug. 1, 2008. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ring of fire

    A series of photographs shows the moon passing between the sun and Earth during the annular solar eclipse of Jan. 26, 2009, as seen from Bandar Lampung in Indonesia. The photographs were taken with a solar filter on the lens. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sun-watching sunbathers

    A couple looks at October 2005's annular eclipse with special glasses on a beach in Gandia in eastern Spain. (Fernando Bustamante / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cloud cover

    The sun is seen during a partial solar eclipse in Chennai (Madras), India, on Oct. 3, 2005. (M. Lakshman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Holy sight

    A multiple-exposure photo captures the moon's movement across the disk of the sun on Aug. 11, 1999, as seen from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. This was the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century. (Ali Kabas / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Solar streams

    The sun's corona is a tenuous outer atmosphere composed of streams of energetic charged particles, but it is seen easily from Earth only during a total solar eclipse. This 1991 image of totality from atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, provides a fleeting glimpse of the corona's intricate structures and streams. (High Altitude Observatory, Ncar) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Eclipses everywhere

    An employee at a department store in Hamburg, Germany, watches an array of televisions during broadcast coverage of the total solar eclipse of August 1999. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Boxed in

    Wendy Shifrin of South Lee, Mass., uses a box fitted with welders' glass to view a partial solar eclipse from New York's Central Park on Dec. 25, 2000. People in the Northeast saw the moon blot out as much as 60 percent of the sun around midday. The next partial Christmas eclipse, according to astronomers, will be in 2307. (Tina Fineberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Red sky at morning

    The new moon covers up part of the sun during an eclipse seen from a fishing spot on the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 21, 2001. (Miguel Mendez / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A bitten sun in Bulgaria

    Bulgarian children look at a partial solar eclipse through a telescope in the Black Sea port of Varna on Oct. 3, 2005. (Str / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lord of the ring

    A sequence of three pictures, taken from the Portuguese city of Arguzelo, shows the progress of the annular eclipse on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, a thin ring of the sun's disk remains visible around the dark disk of the moon. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Skywatching shepherd

    Portuguese villager Jose Preto, 78, watches the progress of the October 2005 annular solar eclipse through radiation-blocking glasses while tending a flock of sheep at Rio de Onor. (Paulo Duarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sliver of sun

    A man looks through a filter at an annular solar eclipse from La Linea in southern Spain on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, the moon moves between the sun and Earth but does not completely cover the solar disk, due to the orbital mechanics involved. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A taste of the sun

    A partial solar eclipse is projected onto at a girl's tongue as she looks into the sky over the Jordanian capital Amman on Oct. 3, 2005. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Do-it-yourself astronomy

    A man looks at the annular eclipse of October 2005 through a homemade cardboard tube with a filter taped over it, outside a planetarium in Pamplona, Spain. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Diamond ring

    An annular solar eclipse produces a "diamond ring" effect on May 30, 1984, as seen from Picayune, Miss. (Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Flower power

    In Amman, Jordan, the sun is reflected on a flower as the moon partially blocks it, forming a crescent during the solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Desert spectacle

    Libyan youths watch the total solar eclipse in the desert tourist camp in Galo on March 29, 2006, where thousands of astronomers and thrill-seekers gathered to view the sight. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Protecting the flock

    A young Lebanese shepherd carries a goat as he watches a partial solar eclipse in the village of Bqosta, near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on March 29. Both the shepherd and the goat are wearing protective eyewear. (Mohammed Zaatari / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. View from space

    Astronauts aboard the international space station snapped this picture from 230 miles above Earth as the shadow of the moon fell on the planet during a total solar eclipse on March 29, 2006. Visible near the shadow are portions of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of Turkey. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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