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Newsflash: Sunspot Appears!

Sunspot animation of Sunspot 1019.  Credit: Spaceweather.com

Sunspot animation of Sunspot 1019. Credit: Spaceweather.com

OK, I admit – the headline is a little over the top. But the sun has been so quiet of late, that even a small sunspot can be exciting. There’s been some debate whether this period of extreme solar calm is truly unusual, or just part of the natural cycle. But solar cycle models never predicted this low amount of activity. “It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” admitted Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, a member of an international panel of experts that are now trying to predict what the next solar cycle will hold. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

The panel is predicting that the next cycle, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78.
Sunspot cycles

Right now, the solar cycle is in a valley–the deepest of the past century. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare.

“In our professional careers, we’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Pesnell. “Solar minimum has lasted far beyond the date we predicted in 2007.”

For 2009, the number of “spotless” days are 123, as of May 31, which is 82%.

There’s a little sign of action on the sun, though. In recent months small sunspots and “proto-sunspots” are popping up with increasing frequency. Enormous currents of plasma on the sun’s surface (“zonal flows”) are gaining strength and slowly drifting toward the sun’s equator. Radio astronomers have detected a tiny but significant uptick in solar radio emissions. All these things are precursors of an awakening Solar Cycle 24 and form the basis for the panel’s new, almost unanimous forecast.

According to the forecast, the sun should remain generally calm for at least another year. This calm has a greater affect on Earth’s atmosphere than you might imagine. With low solar activity, the Earth’s atmosphere can cool and contract. Space junk accumulates in Earth orbit because there is less aerodynamic drag; hence the increase in the number of collision event “alarms” for the ISS and shuttles. The calm solar wind whips up fewer magnetic storms around Earth’s poles. Cosmic rays that are normally pushed back by solar wind instead intrude on the near-Earth environment. There are other side-effects, too, that can be studied only so long as the sun remains quiet.

But the sun is a very chaotic place, and even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather from solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) said Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. So we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

Sources: Science@NASA, SpaceWeather.com


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nereid June 5, 2009, 1:51 PM

    I’m asking, and looking forward to receiving

    And, yes, there is a published peer reviewed paper that identifies an “electron drift” towards the Sun.

    Ask and ye shall receive.

    For avoidance of doubt, are you claiming that this “‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis” DOES explain well all the 17 items on the list?

    If your answer is at least a qualified yes, may I ask what your criteria for determine ‘explain well’ are?

  • Jon Hanford June 5, 2009, 2:48 PM

    Where are the PU/PC/EU sunspot number predictions? Thank you in advance.

  • ND June 5, 2009, 3:17 PM


    I looked at the video just to be complete and it was just as I expected, a video brochure summarizing PC ideas. No predictions made.

    Look, there are astronomers who are developing models and predicting the sunspot cycle and testing them through observation. And this is happening in the open, in front of everyone to see if the predictions hold up or not. There is honest and open science here. Where is the EU/PC equivalent? Where are the sunspot predictions? This is an excellent opportunity to prove mainstream solar astronomy wrong. The solar observations are there to test against. And they don’t even have to make the observations. It’s being done for them.

    Also, see previous discussions on the neutrino defficiency. Particularly the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory results. This is a tired old line still being thrown aboot.

    In the video they talk about seeing into the sun via sunspots but they don’t mention how deep we’re seeing into the sun.

  • Nereid June 5, 2009, 3:23 PM

    @ND: that Youtube video is pure marketing spam, and the difference between Anaconda and a Snake Oil salesman is slim to none …

    … unless, of course, he comes through with his claim of “a published peer reviewed paper that identifies an “electron drift” towards the Sun“.

    No wait; “an “electron drift” towards the Sun” is not one of the 17 items, so unless said paper ALSO addresses, quantitatively, at least a decent subset of the 17 …

  • ND June 5, 2009, 3:29 PM

    solar spectrum?!?!

    How does the standard model run into trouble with the solar spectrum?

  • ND June 6, 2009, 8:34 AM

    I guess Anaconda and solrey don’t know of any sunspot predictions. Maybe there are no testable EU/PC sunspot predictions. This thread is now dead.

  • Jon Hanford June 6, 2009, 6:02 PM

    Maybe the solar spectrum doesn’t take into account electromagnetism :)

  • DrFlimmer June 7, 2009, 12:43 PM

    There have been remarks, but where is the paper?
    Too bad, Anaconda has lost it….

  • Nereid June 8, 2009, 5:36 AM

    It’s day three, and no sign of Anaconda’s promised paper, and some real science on the electric sun.

    The conclusion that his June 5th, 2009 at 12:16 pm comment was nothing more than advertising combined with promotion of personal, alternative physics theories seems ever more reasonable … and an explicit violation of the UT story comment rules.

  • Nereid2 June 11, 2009, 2:45 AM

    So where’s this paper you promised Anaconda?

    I see that you’re happy to promote a personal theory (‘Electric Sun’) in another UT story thread, but rather shy about showing anyone any details of what it is.

    Could it be, perhaps, because you’ve already floated it on the BA blog, and had the idea shredded?

  • Nereid2 June 12, 2009, 5:44 AM

    I’ve been doing some surfing, and came across Tom Bridgman’s “Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy” blog (here is a good place to start: http://dealingwithcreationisminastronomy.blogspot.com/2009_05_01_archive.html
    There are also some very good entries in March, April, and June 2009, along with links to a set of earlier blogs that systematically demolish Scott’s pseudoscientific nonsense).

    This is very pertinent to Anaconda’s comment:

    it is true that the ‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis is the most controversial aspect of Electric Universe theory.

    Why? Because someone called ‘Anaconda’ wrote several comments in response to Tom Bridgman’s demolition of Scott’s ideas!

    If this person is the same Anaconda, and if the same Electric Sun and Electric Universe, my conclusion is that we have prima facie evidence of Anaconda’s disingenuousness, as well as pretty good evidence that many of his comments on UT stories – at least in the last month or so – are marketing spam, and deliberate, cynical spam at that too.

  • DrFlimmer June 12, 2009, 2:55 PM

    Thanks for the link Nereid2 – I have to remember it when there is a discussion with those guys, again 😉

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