Are We Headed Towards Another Deep Solar Minimum?

Solar SDO
Solar SDO
A (nearly) naked Sol… more the norm than the exception these days. Credit: NASA/SDO AIA 512/1600 imager.

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?

solar minimum
The story thus far… and the curious drama that is solar cycle #24. Credit: David Hathaway/NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.

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.

partial solar eclipse
The partial eclipse of the Sun, October 23, 2014, as seen from Jasper, Alberta, shot under clear skies through a mylar filter, on the front of a 66mm f/6 apo refractor using the Canon 60Da for 1/8000 (!) sec exposure at ISO 100. The colors are natural, with the mylar filter providing a neutral “white light” image. The big sunspot on the Sun that day is just beginning to disappear behind the Moon’s limb. The mylar filter gave a white Sun, its natural colour, but I have tinted the Sun’s disk yellow for a more pleasing view that is not just white Sun/black sky. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer/Amazing

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.

An animation of massive susnpot AR 2192 crossing the Earthward face of Sol from October 17th to October 29th, 2014. Credit: NASA/SDO.

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.

A guide to features on the Sun. The left view in Calcium-K shows the photosphere and is similar to a standard whitelight view, and the right view shows features in the chromosphere in hydrogen-alpha. Credit: Paul Stewart Instagram: @Upsidedownastronomer/annotations by Dave Dickinson

…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.

Solar scopes
Safe ways to observe the Sun: a homemade whitelight filter (left) and a Coronado PST solar telescope (right). Images by author.

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!

Living with a Capricious Star: What Drives the Solar Cycle?

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?

Image credit: David Dickinson
One of the exceptionally active sunspot groups seen for Cycle #24 in early 2014. Image credit: David Dickinson

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.

The ‘Butterfly diagram’ of sunspot distribution by latitude over previous solar cycles. Image credit: NASA/Marshall Spaceflight Center

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.

Solar cycle
The sunspot number predicted for the current Cycle #24 versus reality. Image credit: NASA

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.

There are ideas out there that Jupiter drives the solar cycle. A 2012 paper suggested just that. It’s an enticing theory for sure, as Jupiter orbits the Sun once every 11.9 years.

The motion of the solar barycenter through the last half of the 20th century. Image credit: Carl Smith/Wikimedia Commons
The motion of the solar barycenter through the last half of the 20th century. Image credit: Carl Smith/Wikimedia Commons

And a recent paper has even proposed that Uranus and Neptune might drive much longer cycles…

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.

Rigs to view the Sun in both hydrogen-alpha and visible light. Credit: David Dickinson
Rigs to view the Sun in both hydrogen-alpha and visible light. Credit: David Dickinson

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.

That’s science, baby.