It’s almost impossible to over-emphasize the primal, raging, natural power of a star. Our Sun may appear benign in simple observations, but with the advanced scientific instruments at our disposal in modern times, we know differently. In observations outside the narrow band of light our eyes can see, the Sun appears as an enraged, infuriated sphere, occasionally hurling huge jets of plasma into space, some of which slam into Earth.
Jets of plasma slamming into Earth isn’t something to be celebrated (unless you’re in a weird cult); it can cause all kinds of problems.
Pre-Columbian Mexico (or Mesoamerica) hosted one of the largest civilizations and populations in the world. The most well-known and dominant of these civilizations (prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors) were the Aztecs (or Mexica). Their empire, known as the Triple Alliance, was centered around Lake Texcoco and consisted of the major cities Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. In addition to engineering massive temples, aqueducts, canal systems, and estuaries, the Aztecs are renowned for being accomplished astronomers and agronomists.
At the height of their power, the Aztec Empire supported a population of up to 3 million in the Valley of Mexico, and many of their largest cities had populations exceeding 100,000. This was not easy, given that the region is characterized by arid springs followed by winter monsoons. According to recent research by the University of California Riverside (UCR), the Aztecs used mountain alignments as a solar observatory to create an accurate agricultural calendar. This allowed their farmers to produce enough food to feed one of the most densely-populated regions on Earth.
Sunspots are one of the ways we can measure the activity level of the Sun. Generally, the more sunspots we observe, the more active the Sun is. We’ve been tracking sunspots since the early 1600s, and we’ve long known that solar activity has an 11-year cycle of high and low activity. It’s an incredibly regular cycle. But from 1645 to 1715 that cycle was broken. During this time the Sun entered an extremely quiet period that has come to be known as the Maunder Minimum. In the deepest period of the minimum, only 50 sunspots were observed, when typically there would be tens of thousands. We’ve never observed such a long period of quiet since, and we have no idea why it occurred.
Have you been keeping an eye on Sol lately? One of the top astronomy stories for 2018 may be what’s not happening, and how inactive our host star has become.
The strange tale of Solar Cycle #24 is ending with an expected whimper: as of May 8th, the Earthward face of the Sun had been spotless for 73 out of 128 days thus far for 2018, or more than 57% of the time. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the solar minimum between solar cycle #23 and #24 saw 260 spotless days in 2009 – the most recorded in a single year since 1913. Cycle #24 got off to a late and sputtering start, and though it produced some whopper sunspots reminiscent of the Sol we knew and loved on 20th century cycles past, it was a chronic under-performer overall. Mid-2018 may see the end of cycle #24 and the start of Cycle #25… or will it?
One nice surprise during Cycle #24 was the appearance of massive sunspot AR 2192, which popped up just in time for the partial solar eclipse of October 23rd, 2014. Several times the size of the Earth, the spot complex was actually the largest seen in a quarter century. But just as “one swallow does not a Summer make,” one large sunspot group couldn’t save Solar Cycle #24.
The Sun goes through an 11-year sunspot cycle, marked by the appearance of new spots at mid- solar latitudes, which then slowly progress to make subsequent appearances closer towards the solar equator, in a pattern governed by what’s known as Spörer’s Law. The hallmark of a new solar cycle is the appearance of those high latitude spots. The Sun actually flips overall polarity every cycle, so a proper Hale Cycle for the Sun is actually 11 x 2 = 22 years long.
A big gaseous fusion bomb, the Sun actually rotates once every 25 days near its equator, and 34 days at the poles. The Sun’s rotational axis is also tipped 7.25 degrees relative to the ecliptic, with the northern rotational pole tipped towards us in early September, while the southern pole nods towards us in early March.
What’s is store for Cycle #25? One thing’s for certain: if the current trend continues, with spotless days more the rule than the exception, we could be in for a deep profound solar minimum through the 2018 to 2020 season, the likes of which would be unprecedented in modern astronomy.
Fun fact: a similar dearth of sunspots was documented during the 1645-1715 period referred to as the Maunder Minimum. During this time, crops failed and the Thames River in London froze, making “frost fairs” along its frozen shores possible. Ironically, the Maunder Minimum also began just a few decades after the dawn of the age of telescopic astronomy. During this time, the idea of “spots on the Sun” was regulated to a controversial, and almost mythical status in mainstream astronomy.
Keeping Vigil on a Tempestuous (?) Star
We’ve managed to study the last two solar cycles with unprecedented scrutiny. NASA’s STEREO-A and -B spacecraft (Only A is currently active) monitors the farside of the Sun from different vantage points. The Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA SDO) keeps watch on the Sun across the electromagnetic spectrum. And our favorite mission, the joint NASA/European Space Agency’s SOHO spacecraft, has monitored the Sun from its sunward L1 Lagrange vantage point since it launched in 1995—nearly through one complete 22 year Hale Cycle by mid- 2020s. Not only has SOHO kept a near-continuous eye on Sol, but it’s also discovered an amazing 3,398 sungrazing comets as of September 1st, 2017… mostly due to the efforts of diligent online amateur astronomers.
…and did you know: we can actually model the solar farside currently out of view from the Earth to a high degree of fidelity thanks to the advent of powerful computational methods used in the nascent field of solar helioseismology.
Unfortunately, this low ebb in the solar cycle will also make for lackluster aurora in the years to come. It’s a shame, really… the relatively powerful cycles of the 1970s and 80s hosted some magnificent aurorae seen from mid-latitudes (and more than a few resulting blackouts). We’re still getting some minor outbursts, but you’ll have to venture “North/South of the 60” to really see the aurorae in all of its splendor over the next few years.
But don’t take our word for it: get out there and observe the Sun for yourself. Don’t let this discourage you when it comes to observing the Sun. Even near its minimum, the Sun is a fascinating target of study… and unlike most astronomical objects, the face of the Sun can change very quickly, sometimes erupting with activity from one hour to the next.
We like to use a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope to monitor the Sun in hydrogen-alpha for prominences and filaments: such a scope can be kept at the ready to pop outside at lunch time daily for a quick look. For observing sunspots and the solar photosphere in white-light, you’ll need an approved glass filter which fits snugly over the aperture end of your telescope or camera, or you can make a safe solar filter with Baader Safety Film.
Does the sunspot cycle tell the whole picture? Certainly, the Sun most likely has longer, as yet undiscovered cycles. For about a century now, astronomers have used the Wolf Sunspot Number as calculated mean average to describe the current state of activity seen on the Sun. An interesting study calls this method into question, and notes that the direction and orientation of the heliospheric current sheet surrounding the Sun seems to provide a better overall depiction of solar activity.
Other mysteries of the Sun include: just why does the solar cycle seem baked in at 11 years? Why don’t we ever see spots at the poles? And what’s in store for the future? We do know that solar output is increasing to the tune of 1% every 100 million years… and a billion years from now, Earth will be a toasty place, probably too warm to sustain liquid water on its surface…
Which brings us to the final point: what role does the solar cycle play versus albedo, global dimming and climate? This is a complex game to play: Folks have literally gone broke trying to link the solar cycle with terrestrial human affairs and everything from wheat crops to stock market fluctuations. Many a climate change-denier will at least concede that the current climate of the Earth is indeed changing, though they’ll question human activity’s role in it. The rather ominous fact is, taking only current solar activity into account, we should be in a cooling trend right now, a signal in the data that anthropogenic climate change is working hard against.
See for yourself. You can keep track of Sol’s daily activity online: our favorite sites are SpaceWeather, NOAA’s space weather/aurora activity page, and the SOHO and SDO websites.
Be sure to keep tabs of Sol, as the next solar minimum approaches and we ask the question: will Cycle #25 occur at all?
Well, we’re finally emerging from our self-imposed monastic exile that is editing to mention we’ve got a book coming out later this year: The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer, and yes, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to solar observing and aurora. The book is up for pre-order now, and comes out on October 23rd, 2018!
Red dwarf stars have proven to be a treasure trove for exoplanet hunters in recent years. In addition to multiple exoplanets candidates being detected around stars like TRAPPIST-1, Gliese 581, Gliese 667C, and Kepler 296, there was also the ESO’s recent discovery of a planet orbiting within the habitable zone of our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.
And it seems the trend is likely to continue, with the latest discovery comes from a team of European scientists. Using data from the ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) and HARPS-N instruments, they detected an exoplanet candidate orbiting around GJ 536 – an M-class red dwarf star located about 32.7 light years (10.03 parsecs) from Earth.
According to their study, “A super-Earth Orbiting the Nearby M-dwarf GJ 536“, this planet is a super-Earth – a class of exoplanet that has between more than one, but less than 15, times the mass of Earth. In this case, the planet boasts a minimum of 5.36 ± 0.69 Earth masses, has an orbital period of 8.7076 ± 0.0025 days, and orbits its sun at a distance of 0.06661 AU.
The team was led by Dr. Alejandro Suárez Mascareño of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The discovery of the planet was part of his thesis work, which was conducted under Dr Rafael Rebolo – who is also a member of the IAC, the Spanish National Research Council and a professor at the University of Laguna. And while the planet is not a potentially habitable world, it does present some interesting opportunities for exoplanet research.
As Dr. Mascareño shared with Universe Today via email:
“GJ 536 b is a small super Earth discovered in a very nearby star. It is part of the group of the smallest planets with measured mass. It is not in the habitable zone of its star, but its relatively close orbit and the brightness of its star makes it a promising target for transmission spectroscopy IF we can detect the transit. With a star so bright (V 9.7) it would be possible to obtain good quality spectra during the hypothetical transit to try to detect elements in the atmosphere of the planet. We are already designing a campaign for next year, but I guess we won’t be the only ones.”
The survey that found this planet was part of a joint effort between the IAC (Spain) and the Geneva Observatory (Switzerland). The data came from the HARPS and HARPS-N instruments, which are mounted on the ESO’s 3.6 meter telescope at the La Silla Observstory in Chile and the 3.6 meter telescope at the La Palma Observatory in Spain. This was combined with photometric data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), which has observatories in Chile and Maui.
The research team relied on radial velocity measurements from the star to discern the presence of the planet, as well as spectroscopic observations of the star that were taken over a 8.6 year period. For all this, they not only detected an exoplanet candidate with 5 times the mass of Earth, but also derived information on the star itself – which showed that it has a rotational period of about 44 days, and magnetic cycle that lasts less than three years.
This detection is just the latest in a long line of exoplanets being discovered around low-mass, low-luminosity, M-class (red dwarf) stars. And looking ahead, the team hopes to continue surveying GJ 536 to see if there is a planetary system, which could include some Earth-like planets, and maybe even a few gas giants.
“For now we have detected only one planet, but we plan to continue monitoring the star to search for other companions at larger orbital separations,” said Dr. Mascareño. “We estimate there is still room for other low-mass or even Neptune-mass planets at orbits from a hundred of days to a few years.”
The research also included scientists from the Astronomical Observatory at the University of Geneva, the University of Grenoble, The Astrophysical and Planetological Insitute of Grenoble, Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, and the University of Porto, Portugal.
You can be thankful that we bask in the glow of a relatively placid star. Currently about halfway along its 10 billion year career on the Main Sequence, our Sun fuses hydrogen into helium in a battle against gravitational collapse. This balancing act produces energy via the proton-proton chain process, which in turn, fuels the drama of life on Earth.
Looking out into the universe, we see stars that are much more brash and impulsive, such as red dwarf upstarts unleashing huge planet-sterilizing flares, and massive stars destined to live fast and die young.
Our Sun gives us the unprecedented chance to study a star up close, and our modern day technological society depends on keeping a close watch on what the Sun might do next. But did you know that some of the key mechanisms powering the solar cycle are still not completely understood?
One such mystery confronting solar dynamics is exactly what drives the periodicity related to the solar cycle. Follow our star with a backyard telescope over a period of years, and you’ll see sunspots ebb and flow in an 11 year period of activity. The dazzling ‘surface’ of the Sun where these spots are embedded is actually the photosphere, and using a small telescope tuned to hydrogen-alpha wavelengths you can pick up prominences in the warmer chromosphere above.
This cycle is actually is 22 years in length (that’s 11 years times two), as the Sun flips polarity each time. A hallmark of the start of each solar cycle is the appearance of sunspots at high solar latitudes, which then move closer to the solar equator as the cycle progresses. You can actually chart this distribution in a butterfly diagram known as a Spörer chart, and this pattern was first recognized by Gustav Spörer in the late 19th century and is known as Spörer’s Law.
We’re currently in the midst of solar cycle #24, and the measurement of solar cycles dates all the way back to 1755. Galileo observed sunspots via projection (the tale that he went blind observing the Sun in apocryphal). We also have Chinese records going back to 364 BC, though historical records of sunspot activity are, well, spotty at best. The infamous Maunder Minimum occurred from 1645 to 1717 just as the age of telescopic astronomy was gaining steam. This dearth of sunspot activity actually led to the idea that sunspots were a mythical creation by astronomers of the time.
But sunspots are a true reality. Spots can grow larger than the Earth, such as sunspot active region 2192, which appeared just before a partial solar eclipse in 2014 and could be seen with the unaided (protected) eye. The Sun is actually a big ball of gas, and the equatorial regions rotate once every 25 days, 9 days faster than the rotational period near the poles. And speaking of which, it is not fully understood why we never see sunspots at the solar poles, which are tipped 7.25 degrees relative to the ecliptic.
Other solar mysteries persist. One amazing fact about our Sun is the true age of the sunlight shining in our living room window. Though it raced from the convective zone and through the photosphere of the Sun at 300,000 km per second and only took 8 minutes to get to your sunbeam-loving cat here on Earth, it took an estimated 10,000 to 170,000 years to escape the solar core where fusion is taking place. This is due to the terrific density at the Sun’s center, over seven times that of gold.
Another amazing fact is that we can actually model the happenings on the farside of the Sun utilizing a new fangled method known as helioseismology.
Another key mystery is why the current solar cycle is so weak… it has even been proposed that solar cycle 25 and 26 might be absent all together. Are there larger solar cycles waiting discovery? Again, we haven’t been watching the Sun close enough for long enough to truly ferret these ‘Grand Cycles’ out.
Are sunspot numbers telling us the whole picture? Sunspot numbers are calculated using formula that includes a visual count of sunspot groups and the individual sunspots in them that are currently facing Earthward, and has long served as the gold standard to gauge solar activity. Research conducted by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2013 has suggested that the orientation of the heliospheric current sheet might actually provide a better picture as to the goings on of the Sun.
Another major mystery is why the Sun has this 22/11 year cycle of activity in the first place. The differential rotation of the solar interior and convective zone known as the solar tachocline drives the powerful solar dynamo. But why the activity cycle is the exact length that it is is still anyone’s guess. Perhaps the fossil field of the Sun was simply ‘frozen’ in the current cycle as we see it today.
Color us skeptical on these ideas. Although Jupiter accounts for over 70% of the planetary mass in the solar system, it’s 1/1000th as massive as the Sun. The barycenter of Jupiter versus the Sun sits 36,000 kilometres above the solar surface, tugging the Sun at a rate of 12.4 metres per second.
I suspect this is a case of coincidence: the solar system provides lots of orbital periods of varying lengths, offering up lots of chances for possible mutual occurrences. A similar mathematical curiosity can be seen in Bode’s Law describing the mathematical spacing of the planets, which to date, has no known basis in reality. It appears to be just a neat play on numbers. Roll the cosmic dice long enough, and coincidences will occur. A good test for both ideas would be the discovery of similar relationships in other planetary systems. We can currently detect both starspots and large exoplanets: is there a similar link between stellar activity and exoplanet orbits? Demonstrate it dozens of times over, and a theory could become law.
Quick: how do you aim an instrument at the Sun from a moving rocket on a fifteen minute suborbital flight?
The answer is very carefully, and NASA plans to do just that today, Thursday, November 6th as the Rapid Acquisition Imaging Spectrograph Experiment, also known as RAISE, takes to the skies over White Sands, New Mexico, to briefly study the Sun.
Capturing five images per second, RAISE is expected to gather over 1,500 images during five minutes of data collection near apogee.
Why use sub-orbital sounding rockets to do observations of the Sun? Don’t we already have an armada of space and ground-based instruments to accomplish this that stare at our nearest star around the clock? Well, it turns out that sounding rockets are still cost-effective means of testing and demonstrating new technologies.
“Even on a five-minute flight, there are niche areas of science we can focus on well,” said solar scientist Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado in a recent press release. “There are areas of the Sun that need to be examined with the high-cadence observations that we can provide.”
Indeed, there’s a long history of studying the Sun by use of high-altitude sounding rockets, starting with the detection of solar X-rays by a detector placed in a captured V-2 rocket launched from White Sands in 1949.
RAISE will actually scrutinize an active region of the Sun turned Earthward during its brief flight to create what’s known as a spectrogram, or an analysis of solar activity at differing wavelengths. This gives scientists a three dimensional layered snapshot of solar activity, as different wavelengths correspond to varying velocities of solar material and wavelengths. Think of looking at layers of cake. This, in turn, paints a picture of how material is circulated and moved around the surface of the Sun.
This will be RAISE’s second flight, and this week’s launch will sport a brand new diffraction grating coated with boron carbide to enhance wavelength analysis. RAISE will also look at the Sun in the extreme ultraviolet which cannot penetrate the Earth’s lower atmosphere. Technology pioneered by missions such as RAISE may also make its way into space permanently on future missions, such as the planned European Space Agency and NASA joint Solar Orbiter Mission, set for launch in 2017. The Solar Orbit Mission will study the Sun close up and personal, journeying only 26 million miles or 43 million kilometres from its surface, well inside the perihelion of the planet Mercury.
“This is the second time we have flown a RAISE payload, and we keep improving it along the way,” Hassler continued. “This is a technology that is maturing relatively quickly.”
As you can imagine, RAISE relies on clear weather for a window to launch. RAISE was scrubbed for launch on November 3rd, and the current window for launch is set for 2:07 PM EST/19:07 Universal Time, which is 12:07 PM MST local time at White Sands. Unlike the suborbital launches from Wallops Island, the White Sands launches aren’t generally carried live, though they tend to shut down US highway 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo that bisects White Sands just prior to launch.
Currently, the largest sunspot turned forward towards the Earth is active region 2205.
Another recent mission lofted by a sounding rocket to observe the Sun dubbed Hi-C was highly successful during its short flight in 2013.
RAISE will fly on a Black Brant sounding rocket, which typically reaches an apogee of 180 miles or 300 kilometres.
Unfortunately, the massive sunspot region AR2192 is currently turned away from the Earth and will effectively be out of RAISE’s view. The largest in over a decade, the Jupiter sized sunspot wowed viewers of the final solar eclipse of 2014 just last month. This large sunspot group will most likely survive its solar farside journey and reappear around the limb of the Sun sometime after November 9th, good news if RAISE is indeed scrubbed today due to weather.
And our current solar cycle has been a very schizophrenic one indeed. After a sputtering start, solar cycle #24 has been anemic at best, with the Sun struggling to come out of a profound minimum, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in over a century. And although October 2014 produced a Jupiter-sized sunspot that was easily seen with eclipse glasses, you wouldn’t know that we’ve passed a solar maximum from looking at the Sun now. In fact, there’s been talk among solar astronomers that solar cycle #25 may be even weaker, or absent all together.
All this makes for fascinating times to study our sometimes strange star. RAISE observations will also be coordinated with views from the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the joint NASA-JAXA Hinode satellites in Earth orbit. We’ll also be at White Sands National Park today, hoping the get a brief view of RAISE as it briefly touches space.
Approximately every 11 years the Sun becomes violently active, putting on a show of magnetic activity for aurora watchers and sungazers alike. But the timing of the solar cycle is far from precise, making it hard to determine the exact underlying physics.
Typically astronomers use sunspots to map the course of the solar cycle, but now an international team of astronomers have discovered a new marker: brightpoints, small bright spots in the solar atmosphere that allow us to observe the constant turmoil of material inside the Sun.
The new markers provide a new method in understanding how the Sun’s magnetic field evolves over time, suggesting a deeper and longer cycle.
A well-behaved Sun flips its north and south magnetic poles every 11 years. The cycle begins when the field is weak and dipolar. But the Sun’s rotation is faster at its equator than at its poles, and this difference stretches and tangles the magnetic field lines, ultimately producing sunspots, prominences, and sometimes flares.
“Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun’s interior,” said lead author Scott McIntosh, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in a news release. “But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement.”
So McIntosh and colleagues developed a new tracking devise: spots of extreme ultraviolet and X-ray light, known as brightpoints in the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona.
“Now we can see there are bright points in the solar atmosphere, which act like buoys anchored to what’s going on much deeper down,” said McIntosh. “They help us develop a different picture of the interior of the sun.”
At solar minimum there might be two bands in the northern hemisphere (one positive and one negative) and two bands in the southern hemisphere (one negative and one positive). Due to their close proximity, bands of opposite charge easily cancel one another, causing the Sun’s magnetic system to be calmer, producing fewer sunspots and eruptions.
But once the two low-latitude bands reach the equator, their polarities cancel each other out and the bands abruptly disappear — a process that takes 19 years on average.
The Sun is now left with just two large bands that have migrated to about 30 degrees latitude. Without the nearby band, the polarities don’t cancel. At this point the Sun’s calm face begins to become violently active as sunspots start to grow rapidly.
Solar maximum only lasts so long, however, because the process of generating a new band of opposite polarity has already begun at high latitudes.
In this scenario, it is the magnetic band’s cycle that truly defines the solar cycle. “Thus, the 11-year solar cycle can be viewed as the overlap between two much longer cycles,” said coauthor Robert Leamon, from Montana State University in Bozeman.
The true test, however, will come with the next solar cycle. McIntosh and colleagues predict that the Sun will enter a solar minimum somewhere in the last half of 2017, and the first sunspots of the next cycle will appear near the end of 2019.
The findings have been published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.
The Sun has provided no shortage of mysteries thus far during solar cycle #24.
And perhaps the biggest news story that the Sun has generated recently is what it isn’t doing. As Universe Today recently reported, this cycle has been an especially weak one in terms of performance. The magnetic polarity flip signifying the peak of the solar maximum is just now upon us, as the current solar cycle #24 got off to a late start after a profound minimum in 2009…
Or is it?
Exciting new research out of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences published in The Astrophysical Journal this past week suggests that we’re only looking at a portion of the puzzle when it comes to solar cycle activity.
Traditional models rely on the monthly averaged sunspot number. This number correlates a statistical estimation of the number of sunspots seen on the Earthward facing side of the Sun and has been in use since first proposed by Rudolf Wolf in 1848. That’s why you also hear the relative sunspot number sometimes referred to as the Wolf or Zürich Number.
But sunspot numbers may only tell one side of the story. In their recent paper titled Two Novel Parameters to Evaluate the Global Complexity of the Sun’s Magnetic Field and Track the Solar Cycle, researchers Liang Zhao, Enrico Landi and Sarah E. Gibson describe a fresh approach to model solar activity via looking at the 3-D dynamics heliospheric current sheet.
The heliospheric current sheet (or HCS) is the boundary of the Sun’s magnetic field separating the northern and southern polarity regions which extends out into the solar system. During the solar minimum, the sheet is almost flat and skirt-like. But during solar maximum, it’s tilted, wavy and complex.
Two variables, known as SD & SL were used by researchers in the study to produce a measurement that can characterize the 3-D complexity of the HCS. “SD is the standard deviation of the latitudes of the HCS’s position on each of the Carrington maps of the solar surface, which basically tells us how far away the HCS is distributed from the equator. And SL is the integral of the slope of HCS on that map, which can tell us how wavy the HCS is on each of the map,” Liang Zhao told Universe Today.
Ground and space-based observations of the Sun’s magnetic field exploit a phenomenon known as the Zeeman Effect, which was first demonstrated during solar observations conducted by George Ellery Hale using his new fangled invention of the spectrohelioscope in 1908. For the recent study, researchers used data covering a period from 1975 through 2013 to characterize the HCS data available online from the Wilcox Solar Observatory.
Comparing the HCS value against previous sunspot cycles yields some intriguing results. In particular, comparing the SD and SL values with the monthly sunspot number provide a “good fit” for the previous three solar cycles— right up until cycle #24.
“Looking at the HCS, we can see that the Sun began to act strange as early as 2003,” Zhao said. “This current cycle as characterized by the monthly sunspot number started a year late, but in terms of HCS values, the maximum of cycle #24 occurred right on time, with a first peak in late 2011.”
“Scientists believe there will be two peaks in the sunspot number in this solar maximum as in the previous maximum (in ~2000 and ~2002),” Zhao continued, “since the Sun’s magnetic fields in the north and south hemispheres look asymmetric, and the north evolved faster than the south recently. But so far as I can see, the highest value of monthly-averaged sunspot number in this cycle 24 is still the one in the November 2011. So we can say the first peak of cycle 24 could be in November of 2011, since it is the highest monthly sunspot number so far in this cycle. If there is a second peak, we will see it sooner or later.”
The paper also notes that although cycle 24 is especially weak when compared to recent cycles, its range of activity is not unique when compared with solar cycles over the past 260 years.
The HCS value characterizes the Sun over one complete Carrington Rotation of 27 days. This is an averaged value for the rotation of the Sun, as the poles rotate slower than the equatorial regions.
The approximately 22 year span of time that it takes for the poles to reverse back to the same polarity again is equal to two average 11 year sunspot cycles. The Sun’s magnetic field has been exceptionally asymmetric during this cycle, and as of this writing, the Sun has already finished its reversal of the north pole first.
This sort of asymmetry during an imminent pole reversal was first recorded during solar cycle 19, which spanned 1954-1964. Solar cycles are numbered starting from observations which began in 1749, just four decades after the end of the 70-year Maunder Minimum.
“This is an exciting time to study the magnetic field of the Sun, as we may be witnessing a return to a less-active type of cycle, more like those of 100 years ago,” NCAR/HAO senior scientist and co-author Sarah Gibson said.
But this time, an armada of space and ground-based observatories will scrutinize our host star like never before. The SOlar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has already followed the Sun through the equivalent of one complete solar cycle— and it has now been joined in space by STEREO A & B, JAXA’s Hinode, ESA’s Proba-2 and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) was also launched earlier this year and has just recently opened for business.
Will there be a second peak following the magnetic polarity reversal of the Sun’s south pole, or is Cycle #24 about to “leave the building?” And will Cycle #25 be absent all together, as some researchers suggest? What role does the solar cycle play in the complex climate change puzzle? These next few years will prove to be exciting ones for solar science, as the predictive significance of HCS SD & SL values are put to the test… and that’s what good science is all about!
-Read the abstract with a link to the full paper in The Astrophysical Journal by University of Michigan researchers here.
Our nearest star has exhibited some schizophrenic behavior thus far for 2013.
By all rights, we should be in the throes of a solar maximum, an 11-year peak where the Sun is at its most active and dappled with sunspots.
Thus far though, Solar Cycle #24 has been off to a sputtering start, and researchers that attended the meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division earlier this month are divided as to why.“Not only is this the smallest cycle we’ve seen in the space age, it’s the smallest cycle in 100 years,” NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center research scientist David Hathaway said during a recent press teleconference conducted by the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Cycle #23 gave way to a profound minimum that saw a spotless Sol on 260 out of 365 days (71%!) in 2009. Then, #Cycle 24 got off to a late start, about a full year overdue — we should have seen a solar maximum in 2012, and now that’s on track for the late 2013 to early 2014 time frame. For solar observers, both amateur, professional and automated, it seems as if the Sun exhibits a “split-personality” this year, displaying its active Cycle #24-self one week, only to sink back into a blank despondency the next.
This new cycle has also been asymmetrical as well. One hallmark heralding the start of a new cycle is the appearance of sunspots at higher solar latitudes on the disk of the Sun. These move progressively toward the Sun’s equatorial regions as the cycle progresses, and can be mapped out in what’s known as a Spörer’s Law.
But the northern hemisphere of the Sun has been much more active since 2006, with the southern hemisphere experiencing a lag in activity. “Usually this asymmetry lasts a year or so, and then the hemispheres synchronize,” said Giuliana de Toma of the High Altitude Observatory.
So far, several theories have been put forth as to why our tempestuous star seems to be straying from its usual self. Along with the standard 11-year cycle, it’s thought that there may be a longer, 100 year trend of activity and subsidence known as the Gleissberg Cycle.
The Sun is a giant ball of gas, rotating faster (25 days) at the equator than at the poles, which rotate once every 34.5 days. This dissonance sets up a massive amount of torsion, causing the magnetic field lines to stretch and snap, releasing massive amounts of energy. The Sun also changes polarity with every sunspot cycle, another indication that a new cycle is underway.
But predictions have run the gamut for Cycle #24. Recently, solar scientists have projected a twin peaked solar maximum for later this year, and thus far, Sol seems to be following this modified trend. Initial predictions by scientists at the start of Cycle #24 was for the sunspot number to have reached 90 by August 2013; but here it is the end of July, and we’re sitting at 68, and it seems that we’ll round out the northern hemisphere Summer at a sunspot number of 70 or so.
Some researchers predict that the following sunspot Cycle #25 may even be absent all together.
“If this trend continues, there will be almost no spots in Cycle 25,” Noted Matthew Penn of the National Solar Observatory, hinting that we may be on the edge of another Maunder Minimum.
The Maunder Minimum was a period from 1645 to 1715 where almost no sunspots were seen. This span of time corresponded to a medieval period known as the Little Ice Age. During this era, the Thames River in London froze, making Christmas “Frost Fairs” possible on the ice covered river. Several villages in the Swiss Alps were also consumed by encroaching glaciers, and the Viking colony established in Greenland perished. The name for the period comes from Edward Maunder, who first noted the minimum in papers published in the 1890s. The term came into modern vogue after John Eddy published a paper on the subject in the journal of Science in 1976. Keep in mind, the data from the period covered by the Maunder Minimum is far from complete— Galileo had only started sketching sunspots via projection only a few decades prior to the start of the Maunder Minimum. But tellingly, there was a span of time in the early 18th century when many researchers supposed that sunspots were a myth! They were really THAT infrequent…
Just what role a pause in the solar cycle might play in the climate change debate remains to be seen. Perhaps, humanity is getting a brief (and lucky) reprieve, a chance to get serious about controlling our own destiny and doing something about anthropogenic climate-forcing. On a more ominous note, however, an extended cooling phase may give us reason to stall on preparing for the inevitable while giving ammunition to deniers, who like to cite natural trends exclusively.
Whatever occurs, we now have an unprecedented fleet of solar monitoring spacecraft on hand to watch the solar drama unfold. STEREO A & B afford us a 360 degree view of the Sun. SOHO has now monitored the Sun for the equivalent of more than one solar cycle, and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory has joined it in its scrutiny. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) just launched earlier this year, and has already begun returning views of the solar atmosphere in unprecedented detail. Even spacecraft such as MESSENGER orbiting Mercury can give us vital data from other vantage points in the solar system.
Cycle #24 may be a lackluster performer, but I’ll bet the Sun has a few surprises in store. You can always get a freak cloud burst, even in the middle of a drought. Plus, we’re headed towards northern hemisphere Fall, a time when aurora activity traditionally picks up.
Be sure to keep a (safely filtered) eye on ol’ Sol— it may be the case over these next few years that “no news is big news!”