The Sun Didn't Have any Sunspots for 70 Years, now we Might Know why

The Sun as seen over the years. Credit: NASA

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.

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1 in 10 Red Giants are Covered in Spots, and They Rotate Surprisingly Quickly

Artist's impression of a red giant star. If the star is in a binary pair, what happens to its sibling? Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Sunspots are common on our Sun. These darker patches are cooler than their surroundings, and they’re caused by spikes in magnetic flux that inhibit convection. Without convection, those areas cool and darken.

Lots of other stars have sunspots, too. But Red Giants (RGs) don’t. Or so astronomers thought.

A new study shows that some RGs do have spots, and that they rotate faster than thought.

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Betelgeuse Probably Dimmed Because of Enormous Starspots

An artist's impression of Betelgeuse. Its surface is covered by large star spots, which reduce its brightness. During their pulsations, such stars regularly release gas into their surroundings, which condenses into dust. Image Credit: MPIA graphics department

A few months ago we all watched as Betelgeuse dimmed. Between October 2019 and 22nd of February 2020 the star’s brightness dropped by a factor of about three. It went from magnitude 0.5, and from being the tenth-brightest star in the sky, to magnitude 1.7.

Naturally, we all wondered what was happening. Would it go supernova? Even though that was extremely unlikely, how could we help but wonder?

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Seeing Starspots: The Curious Case of XX Trianguli

Credit: NASA/JPL/Tom Reding

Ever wonder what happens on the surface of other stars?

An amazing animation was released this week by astronomers at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics (AIP) in Potsam Germany, showing massive sunspot activity on the variable star XX Trianguli (HD 12545). And while ‘starspot’ activity has been seen on this and other stars before, this represents the first movie depicting the evolution of stellar surface activity beyond our solar system.

“We can see our first application as a prototype for upcoming stellar cycle studies, as it enables the prediction of a magnetic-activity cycle on a dramatically shorter timescale than usual,” says Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam astronomer Andreas Kunstler in a recent press release.

The images were the result of a long term analysis of the star carried out using the twin STELLA (STELLar Activity) robotic telescopes based on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The spectroscopic data was gathered over a period of six years, and this video demonstrates that, while other stars do indeed have sunspot cycles similar to our Sun, those of massive stars such as XX Tri are much more intense than any we could imagine here in our own solar system.

Image credit: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP)
STELLA on the hunt. Image credit:

Even the largest and closest of stars have a minuscule angular diameter –measured in milliarcseconds (mas, our 1/1,000ths of an arc second)—in size. For example, we know from lunar occultation timing experiments that the bright star Antares at 550 light years distant and 5 times the radius of our Sun is about 41 mas in size. At an estimated 910 to 1,500 light years distant and 10 times the radius of our Sun, XX Tri is probably comparable, at about 20 mas in size.

That’s tiny from our perspective, though the massive starspot depicted must be truly gigantic to see up close.

To image something on that scale, astronomers use a technique known as Doppler tomography gathered from high-resolution spectra. Over said six year span covering a period from July 2006 to April 2012, 667 viable spectra were gathered, covering 86 total rotational periods for the star. Incidentally, that’s not much longer than the average equatorial rotational period of our Sun—remember, as a ball of gas, the rotational period of our Sun varies with solar latitude—at about 22 days.

Our relatively sedate host star. image credit: Dave Dickinson
Our relatively sedate host star. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The views compiled by the team show a pole facing, Mercator projection, and a spherical ‘real view’ of the star. Of course, to see XX Tri up close would be amazing, if a not a little intimidating with those massive, angry spots dappling its surface.

Watch the animation, and you can see the changing morphology of the spots, as they decay, merge and defuse again. Just how permanent is that massive pole spot? Why are we seeing spots across the pole of a star like XX Tri at all, something we never see on the Sun? Do other stars follow something analogous to Spörer’s Law and their own version of the 11-year sunspot cycle that we see on Sol?

Capabilities such as those demonstrated by STELLA may soon crack these questions wide open. Composed of two 1.2 meter robotic telescopes jointly operated by the Institute for Astrophysics at Potsdam and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), STELLA combines the capability of a wide-field photometric imager with that of a high-resolution spectrograph, ideal for this sort of analysis of remote stellar surfaces.

Image credit:
A diagram featuring the twin STELLA instruments. Image credit: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP)

Hey, here’s a crazy idea: turn STELLA loose on KIC 8462852 and see if the hypothesized ‘exo-comets’ or ‘alien mega-structures’ turn up… though it weighs in much smaller than XX Tri at 1.4x solar masses, KIC 8462852 is also about 1,400 light years distant, perhaps just doable using high resolution spectroscopy…

Image credit:
The location of XX Tri (also known as HIP 9630) in the northern sky. Image credit: created by the author using Stellarium planetarium software

Want to see XX Tri for yourself? An RS Canum Venaticorum variable orange giant star (spectral type K0 III) located in the constellation of Triangulum the Triangle, XX Tri shines at magnitude +8.5 and varies over about half a magnitude in brightness. Its coordinates are:

Right Ascension:  2 hours 3 minutes 47 seconds

Declination: 35 North 35 minutes 29 seconds

The more we learn about other stars, the more we understand about how to live with our very own sometimes placid, sometimes tempestuous host star.

Read more about the curious case of XX Trianguli:

On the Starspot Temperature of HD 12545

HD 124545: A Study in Spottedness

Spot evolution on the Star XX Triangulum (sic)

Does XX Trianguli look familiar? That might be because it was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day as ‘imaged’ by the Coude Feed Telescope on Kitt Peak way back when on November 2nd, 2003.