The Sun Shows Signs of Life

Nov. 7, 2008: After two-plus years of few sunspots, even fewer solar flares, and a generally eerie calm, the sun is finally showing signs of life.

“I think solar minimum is behind us,” says sunspot forecaster David Hathaway of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

His statement is prompted by an October flurry of sunspots. “Last month we counted five sunspot groups,” he says. That may not sound like much, but in a year with record-low numbers of sunspots and long stretches of utter spotlessness, five is significant. “This represents a real increase in solar activity.”

Above: New-cycle sunspot group 1007 emerges on Halloween and marches across the face of the sun over a four-day period in early November 2008. Credit: the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

Even more significant is the fact that four of the five sunspot groups belonged to Solar Cycle 24, the long-awaited next installment of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle. “October was the first time we’ve seen sunspots from new Solar Cycle 24 outnumbering spots from old Solar Cycle 23. It’s a good sign that the new cycle is taking off.”

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Old Solar Cycle 23 peaked in 2000 and has since decayed to low levels. Meanwhile, new Solar Cycle 24 has struggled to get started. 2008 is a year of overlap with both cycles weakly active at the same time. From January to September, the sun produced a total of 22 sunspot groups; 82% of them belonged to old Cycle 23. October added five more; but this time 80% belonged to Cycle 24. The tables have turned.

At first glance, old- and new-cycle sunspots look the same, but they are not. To tell the difference, solar physicists check two things: a sunspot’s heliographic latitude and its magnetic polarity. (1) New-cycle sunspots always appear at high latitude, while old-cycle spots cluster around the sun’s equator. (2) The magnetic polarity of new-cycle spots is reversed compared to old-cycle spots. Four of October’s five sunspot groups satisfied these two criteria for membership in Solar Cycle 24.

On Nov. 3rd and again on Nov. 4th, double-oh seven unleashed a series of B-class solar flares. Although B-flares are considered minor, the explosions made themselves felt on Earth. X-rays bathed the dayside of our planet and sent waves of ionization rippling through the atmosphere over Europe. Hams monitoring VLF radio beacons noticed strange “fades” and “surges” caused by the sudden ionospheric disturbances.

Hathaway tamps down the excitement: “We’re still years away from solar maximum and, in the meantime, the sun is going to have some more quiet stretches.” Even with its flurry of sunspots, the October sun was mostly blank, with zero sunspots on 20 of the month’s 31 days.

But it’s a start. Stay tuned for solar activity.

One thought on “The Sun Shows Signs of Life

  1. James says:

    here comes Suns the official countdown to 12/21/12. So we now know that with our weakened Ozone and Magnetic shielding even “minor” flares are radiating us. What is going to happen when the major flares do the same? How are we going to handle another X10 or greater?

    “The new cycle has already begun with the recent observation of a solar spot with reverse polarity. But some surprising activity on March 27, 2008, shows some huge eruptions with M-class radiation at about the equatorial region of the Sun. These surprising eruptions suggests a barycenter of disturbance from an object even more massive than Jupiter, placing the “sleeve” outside the Sun. Could this be the beginning of the Galaxy’s effects on our Sun?

    Scientists have noted that when Jupiter and Saturn are aligned on the same side of the Sun, the solar activity is at its minimum; when they are on opposite sides of the Sun the solar activity is at its maximum. The positions on December 21, 2012 are ideal for extreme solar activity.”

    So what happens when the gravitational pull pf Jupiter And the Galactic center are tugging from one side, as Saturn does from the other?

    ” Solar flares are pieces of the sun which leap into space, discharging radiation and strong electrical currents that travel outward into space. They often fall back to the surface of the Sun. Sometimes, a very strong flare, called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), actually leaves the Sun and this deadly mass shoots out from the Sun towards the planets like a bullet. Usually these CME’s don’t hit anything but occasionally they hit a planet like Earth. Some believe a powerful CME once hit Mars.

    Most solar flares are small. But even a small flare can be dangerous. In 1989 a flare hit the North American continent and fried electric lines, zapped power grids in the US and Canada, and created large power backouts. Flares can also effect our moods and physical health. In theory, a large flare impacting the Earth could zap the ionosphere (there goes all the satellites, cellphones, GPS…) and irradiate the surface, killing every living organism that it touched.”

    “Astronomers have known about intense radiation from space since the 1970s. Multiple bursts of powerful gamma rays were routinely detected and believed to originate from stars in the Milky Way. Assuming this energy originated locally, astronomers concluded this type of gamma ray burst was insignificant and harmless. Then, in December 1997, they had the technology and good luck to catch a strong gamma ray burst and track it. The source was not inside the Milky Way Galaxy. It was from a distant galaxy billions of light years away

    A review of other bursts showed that their assumptions had been wrong. All of the gamma ray bursts they were observing were from other galaxies far, far away. The amount of energy coming from objects so distant was a real shock. No one had ever imagined such powerful bursts could be generated by galactic centers. The thought of a burst coming from our own Milky Way galactic center was abysmal. A burst of the same intensity as the 1997 event, originating from inside the Milky Way, would deliver 100,000 time the lethal dose of radiation, killing every life form that was exposed. Could that really happen to us?

    This question was answered on August 27th, 1998 when an unusual 5 minute gamma ray pulse was located just 20,000 light years away in the constellation of Aquila. This may sound like a huge distance, but to astronomers this is just “next door.” The Milky Way Galaxy, for example, is just 100,000 light years from end to end.

    The 1998 event was close enough and strong enough to ionize Earth’s upper atmosphere, damage a couple of spacecraft and disrupt global communication. Since then astronomers place gamma ray bursts from the Glaxy’s core at the top of the list of things we don’t want to happen.”

    Mom please FLASH us all away?

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