Amateur astronomers have observed the first sunspots to appear on the solar surface for weeks. This period of extreme magnetic calm has made some scientists believe that Solar Cycle 23 might be a quiet affair. This comes in stark contrast to NASA’s 2006 forecast that this cycle would be a “doozy.” Whether or not the slow start of solar activity is indicative of things to come, we’re not sure, but it sure is great to see activity starting to churn on the solar surface once more…
Ever since the official beginning of Solar Cycle 24 at the start of the year, when a sunspot pair was observed with opposite magnetic polarity to spots in the previous cycle, we have been (im)patiently watching the solar disk for activity. In a 2006 article, NASA had already gotten us excited that Cycle 24 would be more active than the previous cycle (a record breaker in itself), but after that first observed spot in January, nothing. By June, even seasoned solar physicists were hinting at their concerns for the lack of activity. “It continues to be dead. That’s a small concern, a very small concern,” said Saku Tsuneta, program manager for the Hinode mission and Japanese solar physics heavyweight at a June conference. Although nobody seriously hinted that this cycle was going to continue to be dead for the whole cycle, there was some confusion about the nature of our Sun.
To make the situation even more cloudy, back in March, we had a false alarm. Suddenly, the Sun erupted to life, only three months after the start of Cycle 24 was announced. Sunspots, flares and Coronal Mass Ejections sprung to life around the solar equator. You would have been forgiven for thinking the Sun was going to make good on the NASA 2006 forecast. But it wasn’t to be. Critically, these active sunspots were “left overs” from the previous cycle. Like revellers turning up an hour after the party had finished, these sunspots were overlapping remainders of the previous cycle.
At the root of all these observations is space weather prediction. All our activities in space are in some way influenced by solar activity, so it would be advantageous if we could predict when the next solar storm is coming. We have complex models of the Sun and our observational skills are becoming more and more sophisticated, but we still have a very basic grasp on what makes the Sun “tick.”
So today’s discovery, although a little overdue, will excite solar physicists and astronomers the world over. But will the solar activity continue? Is this just an isolated occurrence? For now, we just do not know. We have to sit back, observe and enjoy what surprises the Sun has in store for us in Cycle 24.
Original source: Space Weather