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.Continue reading “The Sun Didn't Have any Sunspots for 70 Years, now we Might Know why”
Astronomers Confirm the Existence of Magnetic Waves in the Sun’s Photosphere
For the first time astronomers have observed waves of magnetic energy, known as Alfvén waves, in the photosphere of the sun. This discovery may help explain why the solar corona is so much hotter than the surface.Continue reading “Astronomers Confirm the Existence of Magnetic Waves in the Sun’s Photosphere”
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Tree Rings Reveal 1,000 Years of Solar Activity
The Sun has a lot of rhythm and goes through different cycles of activity. The most well-known cycle might be the Schwabe cycle, which has an 11-year cadence. But what about cycles with much longer time scales? How can scientists understand them?
As it turns out, the Sun has left some hidden clues in tree rings.Continue reading “Tree Rings Reveal 1,000 Years of Solar Activity”
Solar astronomers can now predict future sunspots. There should be a big one in a couple of days
The surface of the Sun is a turbulent dance of gravity, plasma, and magnetic fields. Much like the weather on Earth, its behavior can seem unpredictable, but there are patterns to be found when you look closely.Continue reading “Solar astronomers can now predict future sunspots. There should be a big one in a couple of days”
What’s Happening with Betelgeuse? Astronomers Propose a Specialized Telescope to Watch the Star Every Night
Starting in late 2019, Betelgeuse began drawing a lot of attention after it mysteriously started dimming, only to brighten again a few months later. For a variable star like Betelgeuse, periodic dimming and brightening are normal, but the extent of its fluctuation led to all sorts of theories as to what might be causing it. Similar to Tabby’s Star in 2015, astronomers offered up the usual suspects (minus the alien megastructure theory!)
Whereas some thought that the dimming was a prelude to the star becoming a Type II supernova, others suggested that dust clouds, enormous sunspots, or ejected clouds of gas were the culprit. In any case, the “Great Dimming of Betelgeuse” has motivated an international team of astronomers to propose that a “Betelgeuse Scope” be created that cant monitor the star constantly.Continue reading “What’s Happening with Betelgeuse? Astronomers Propose a Specialized Telescope to Watch the Star Every Night”
Solar Cycle 25 has arrived. Here’s what to expect from the Sun in the coming months and years
The sun goes through a regular 11-year cycle, swinging between periods of dormancy and periods of activity. Scientists from NASA and NOAA have just announced that the sun has just passed its minimum, and will be ramping up in activity over the next few years, meaning that we have entered a new round of the never-ending solar cycle.Continue reading “Solar Cycle 25 has arrived. Here’s what to expect from the Sun in the coming months and years”
Time-Lapse Video Reveals 10 Years of the Sun’s Life Crushed into One Stellar Hour
I forget the Sun is a star.
I think we all do sometimes. It’s easy to take for granted. The Sun is that glowing thing that rises in the morning and sets in the evening that we don’t generally pay attention to as we go about our day. However, there are these rare moments when we’re reminded that the Sun is truly a STAR – a titanic living sphere of hydrogen smashing plasma a million times the volume of Earth. One of those rare moments for me was standing in the shadow of the 2017 solar eclipse. We had driven down from Vancouver to Madras, Oregon to watch this astronomical freak of nature. A moon hundreds of times smaller than the Sun, but hundreds of times closer, covers the face of the Sun for the majesty of a STAR to be revealed; the fiery maelstrom of the Sun’s atmosphere visible to the naked eye.Continue reading “Time-Lapse Video Reveals 10 Years of the Sun’s Life Crushed into One Stellar Hour”
1 in 10 Red Giants are Covered in Spots, and They Rotate Surprisingly Quickly
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.Continue reading “1 in 10 Red Giants are Covered in Spots, and They Rotate Surprisingly Quickly”
Scientists are much better at predicting when the Sun is going to become more active
The sun constantly cycles between periods of activity and periods of inactivity, and a new technique allows scientists to better predict when things will start getting interesting.Continue reading “Scientists are much better at predicting when the Sun is going to become more active”
Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras
To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.
Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.
There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).
A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.
The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.
Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.
The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.
Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.
Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.
A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.
That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.
The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.
We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.
Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.
NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.