Researchers discover new clues to determining the solar cycle

Sep 03, 2014 by Karen C. Fox
A composite of 25 separate images from NASA's SDO, spanning one year from April 2012 to April 2013. The image reveals the migration tracks of active regions towards the equator during that period. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard

Approximately every 11 years, the sun undergoes a complete personality change from quiet and calm to violently active. The height of the sun's activity, known as solar maximum, is a time of numerous sunspots, punctuated with profound eruptions that send radiation and solar particles out into the far reaches of space.

However, the timing of the is far from precise. Since humans began regularly recording in the 17th century, the time between successive solar maxima has been as short as nine years, but as long as 14, making it hard to determine its cause. Now, researchers have discovered a new marker to track the course of the solar cycle—brightpoints, little bright spots in the that allow us to observe the constant roiling of material inside the . These markers provide a new way to watch the way the magnetic fields evolve and move through our closest star. They also show that a substantial adjustment to established theories about what drives this mysterious cycle may be needed.

Historically, theories about what's going on inside the sun to drive the solar cycle have relied on only one set of observations: the detection of sunspots, a data record that goes back centuries. Over the past few decades, realizing that sunspots are areas of intense magnetic fields, researchers have also been able to include observations of magnetic measurements of the sun from more than 90 million miles away.

"Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun's interior," said Scott McIntosh, a space scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and first author of a paper on these results that appears in the September 1, 2014, issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement. 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. They help us develop a different picture of the interior of the sun."

Over the course of a solar cycle, the sunspots tend to migrate progressively lower in latitude, moving toward the equator. The prevailing theory is that two symmetrical, grand loops of material in each solar hemisphere, like huge conveyor belts, sweep from the poles to the equator where they sink deeper down into the sun and then make their way steadily back to the poles. These conveyor belts also move the magnetic field through the churning solar atmosphere. The theory suggests that sunspots move in synch with this flow – tracking sunspots has allowed a study of that flow and theories about the solar cycle have developed based on that progression. But there is much that remains unknown: Why do the sunspots only appear lower than about 30 degrees? What causes the sunspots of consecutive cycles to abruptly flip magnetic polarity from positive to negative, or vice versa? Why is the timing of the cycle so variable?

Beginning in 2010, McIntosh and his colleagues began tracking the size of different magnetically balanced areas on the sun, that is, areas where there are an equal number of magnetic fields pointing down into the sun as pointing out. The team found magnetic parcels in sizes that had been seen before, but also spotted much larger parcels than those previously noted—about the diameter of Jupiter. The researchers also looked at these regions in imagery of the sun's atmosphere, the corona, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO. They noticed that ubiquitous spots of extreme ultraviolet and X-ray light, known as brightpoints, prefer to hover around the vertices of these large areas, dubbed "g-nodes" because of their giant scale.

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Bands of magnetized solar material – with alternating south and north polarity – march toward the sun's equator. Comparing the evolution of the bands with the sunspot number in each hemisphere over time may change the way we think about what's driving the sun's 11-year sunspot cycle. Credit: S. McIntosh

These brightpoints and g-nodes, therefore, open up a whole new way to track how material flows inside the sun. McIntosh and his colleagues then collected information about the movement of these features over the past 18 years of available observations from the joint European Space Agency and NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and SDO to monitor how the last solar cycle progressed and the current one started. They found that bands of these markers – and therefore the corresponding large magnetic fields underneath – also moved steadily toward the equator over time, along the same path as sunspots, but beginning at a latitude of about 55 degrees. In addition, each hemisphere of the sun usually has more than one of these bands present.

McIntosh explains that a complex interaction of magnetic field lines may take place in the sun's interior that is largely hidden from view. The recent observations suggest that the sun is populated with bands of differently polarized magnetic material that, once they form, steadily move toward the equator from . These bands will either have a northern or southern magnetic polarity and their sign alternates in each hemisphere such that the polarities always cancel. For example, looking at the sun's northern hemisphere, the band closest to the equator – perhaps of northern polarity – would have lines that connect it to another band, at higher latitudes, of southern polarity. Across the equator, in the bottom half of the sun, a similar process occurs, but the bands would be an almost mirror image of those across the equator, southern polarity near the equator and northern at higher latitudes. Magnetic field lines would connect the four bands; inside each hemisphere and across the equator as well.

While the field lines remain relatively short like this, the sun's magnetic system is calmer, producing fewer sunspots and fewer eruptions. This is solar minimum. But once the two low-latitude marching bands reach the equator their polarities essentially cancel each other out. Abruptly they disappear. This process, from migratory start to finish at the equator takes 19 years on average, but is seen to vary from 16 to about 21 years.

Following the equatorial battle and cancellation, the sun is left with just two large bands that have migrated to about 30 degrees latitude. The from these bands are much longer and so the bands in each hemisphere feel less of each other. At this point, the sunspots begin to grow rapidly on the bands, beginning the ramp-up to solar max. The growth only lasts so long, however, because the process of generating a new band of opposite polarity has already begun at high latitudes. When that new band begins to appear, the complex four-band connection starts over and the number of sunspots starts to decrease on the low-latitude bands.

In this scenario, it is the magnetic band's cycle – the lifetime of each band as it marches toward the equator – that truly defines the entire solar cycle. "Thus, the 11-year solar cycle can be viewed as the overlap between two much longer cycles," said Robert Leamon, co-author on the paper at Montana State University in Bozeman and NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The new conceptual model also provides an explanation of why sunspots are trapped below 30 degrees and abruptly change sign. However, the model creates a question about a different latitude line: Why do the magnetic markers, the brightpoints and g-nodes, start appearing at 55 degrees?

"Above that latitude, the solar atmosphere appears to be disconnected from the rotation beneath it," said McIntosh. "So there is reason to believe that, inside the sun, there's a very different internal motion and evolution at high latitudes compared to the region near the . 55-degrees seems to be a critical latitude for the sun and something we need to explore further."

Solar cycles theories are best tested by making predictions as to when we will see the next solar minimum and the next solar maximum. This research paper forecasts that the sun will enter solar minimum somewhere in the last half of 2017, with the sunspots of the next cycle appearing near the end of 2019.

"People make their predictions for when this solar cycle will end and the next one will start," said Leamon. "Sometime in 2019 or 2020, some people will be proved right and others wrong."

In the meantime, regardless of whether the new hypothesis provided by McIntosh and his colleagues is correct, this long term set of bright points and g-node locations offers a new set of observations to explore the drivers of solar activity beyond only sunspots. Inserting this information into solar models will provide an opportunity to improve simulations of our star. Such advanced models tell us more about other stars too, leading to a better understanding of similar magnetic activity on more exotic, distant celestial counterparts.

Explore further: Image of solar activity shows two bright bands circling the Sun

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User comments : 23

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teslaberry
1 / 5 (4) Sep 03, 2014
there is a HUGE whole in experimental observation of the sun's poles. only a scant amount of data is available about the suns poles. the reason is because we need a sattelite with a highly oblique orbit about the sun that is dedicated to observing the sun exclusively. we don't have one and never had.

the same, ironically goes for the earth's magnetosphere and ionospheric polar behavior. a vertiable explosion in data has recently been produced regarding the earth's polar magneto and ionopsheric and even stratospheric axial ion flow. like a giant gassy magnet, the earth's poles are highly active and behave distinctly from the belt flow of the torroidal field.

the sun is quite mysterious in this respect.
FineStructureConstant
5 / 5 (6) Sep 03, 2014
we need a sattelite with a highly oblique orbit about the sun that is dedicated to observing the sun exclusively. we don't have one and never had
- check out the Ulysses spacecraft http://en.wikiped...craft%29 which did observe both of the sun's polar regions in 1994/1995, and the south polar region in 2000/2001.
cantdrive85
1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 03, 2014
They also show that a substantial adjustment to established theories about what drives this mysterious cycle may be needed.


To say the least, like starting from scratch.

"Sunspots have been the perennial marker for understanding the mechanisms that rule the sun's interior," said Scott McIntosh, a space scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and first author of a paper on these results that appears in the September 1, 2014, issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "But the processes that make sunspots are not well understood, and far less, those that govern their migration and what drives their movement.


"In order to understand the phenomena in a certain plasma region, it is necessary to map not only the magnetic but also the electric field and the electric currents." Hannes Alfven, Nobel Laureate

Is it any wonder there is so little understanding, there is a complete disregard of the actual physics involved.
alfie_null
4.6 / 5 (11) Sep 04, 2014
Is it any wonder there is so little understanding, there is a complete disregard of the actual physics involved.

These researchers have the honesty to admit they don't have complete understanding. An honesty that is entirely missing in cranks, crackpots. Or crankology fan-bois.
no fate
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 04, 2014
- check out the Ulysses spacecraft


The data from Ulysses was a catalyst for creation of the current generation of solar observation equipment/methods. The temperature profiles, chemical sensing and thermal data were so far from the accepted model that everyone knew they weren't dealing with anything close to it (accepted model). This article is an excellent description of portions of the suns magnetic field fluctuation over time, eventually we will have enough magnetometric data of the solar system that a clear picture will emerge. (Hint, the external field is just as important to this phenomenon, think "magnetic highway")

So glad they left gravity out of this one. Not attempting to shoehorn relics from an old model or invoking math based fantasy maintains the credibility of the research... Kudos to Mcintosh and his team for earnest scientific pursuit and displaying scientific integrity.

The raw Ulysses data was my first real eye opener, parted ways with MS dogma that day.

nikola_milovic_378
1 / 5 (6) Sep 04, 2014
If someone wants to find out what are the true causes of the appearance of sunspot in different time cycles, then we can conclude an agreement on what who should do it and ensure that this millennium problem solve. All of this makes now science cited as reasons for the appearance of sunspots, are only indicators but not the causes of which are caused by changes in the sun and the sun so that the sun behaves. These causes are much deeper knowledge of the consequences of natural law.
I offer a solution to this and climate change, as they appear in relation to each other, but to today there is no one who should offer to help. I do not know who these people and institutions fear? These comments must read authors of these texts and they are not allowed to offer cooperation. Waiting for a call for cooperation, which would be in favor of human science and humanity to it for once decrypted.
Waiting call !!
IMP-9
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 04, 2014
The temperature profiles, chemical sensing and thermal data were so far from the accepted model


Please tell us exactly how and cite some data to show it.
yep
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 05, 2014
http://arxiv.org/...8081.pdf
You can see in this abstract how gravity and dark matter are considered and correctly discounted. If they considered the solar wind as a solar current or sheet instead they would have had the answer. This and Ulysses finding open helical magnetic fields support Alfven's stellar circuit model and so does the data from Ulysses showing solar wind originates in holes in the sun's corona, and the speed of the solar wind varies inversely with coronal temperature. Louis Lanzerotti from NJIT/Bell labs said "This was completely unexpected. Theorists had predicted the opposite. Now all models of the sun and the solar wind will have to explain this observation."
So much for standard theory. You would think empirical data would falsify it, but the faith is strong in a gravity based thermonuclear reality and beliefs are hard to change.
no fate
1 / 5 (6) Sep 05, 2014
The temperature profiles, chemical sensing and thermal data were so far from the accepted model


Please tell us exactly how and cite some data to show it.


Read the second line under "mission status": https://directory.../ulysses

The raw data is your own resposibility to find if you don't have it.

no fate
1 / 5 (5) Sep 05, 2014
Odd, that post had 4 links. Only one showed. One of which was linked by yep.

There is no new mainstream solar model because the observational data cannot be used to expand on or augment the existing model. It has to be completely overhauled.

This isn't a bad thing, just a neccessity if understanding is to be advanced.
IMP-9
4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 05, 2014
Read the second line under "mission status"


Which has nothing to do with "chemical, temperature or thermal" observations. How typical of you to point to a description page rather than a paper. And no "more complicated" does not mean "everything they thought was wrong". I reject your claim entirely.
IMP-9
4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 05, 2014
You can see in this abstract how gravity and dark matter are considered and correctly discounted.


Except the pioneer anomaly was solved with better models of thermal radiation, so it's solved. Notice how dark matter not being the solution does not invalidate the model.

Ulysses finding open helical magnetic fields support Alfven's stellar circuit model


Citation needed.

I can't find the article you're trying to quote from either. I'd like to see the paper showing how this data invalidates the thermonuclear model. Last I checked we were still detecting solar neutrinos coming from the Sun.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (7) Sep 05, 2014
Last I checked we were still detecting solar neutrinos coming from the Sun.


The presence of neutrinos doesn't invalidate the electric model either as fusion would still occur. As a matter of fact, the level and type of neutrinos found better match that which would be produced by the Electric Sun. The standard model requires great leaps of assumption to "support" the model.
IMP-9
5 / 5 (4) Sep 05, 2014
As a matter of fact, the level and type of neutrinos found better match that which would be produced by the Electric Sun.


Oh please, do share with me the calculations which support this massive claim.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (4) Sep 06, 2014
As a matter of fact, the level and type of neutrinos found better match that which would be produced by the Electric Sun.

Oh please, do share with me the calculations which support this massive claim.
SECONDED

@IMP-9
I've been asking for that for a while
he has nothing to offer from any peer reviewed reputable source (only thunderbolts pseudoscience links)
The thunderbolts links were debunked thoroughly by physics as well as studies with empirical data shared by Tim Thompson and others on his page: http://www.tim-th...eas.html
or
http://www.tim-th...sun.html
he has more available by looking around his page
You can also see Physics trump EU here: http://phys.org/n...ggs.html

I hope you fare better than I
most EU acolytes are more fervent and delusional than any religious fanatic I've ever met
see Higgs link for proof of that

GOOD LUCK IMP-9
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (5) Sep 06, 2014
So Cap'n Stupid, when are you gonna unwrap your lips from Thompson's junk? Ironic your "proof" is to a blog site, devoid of any "reputable peer reviewed studies". Where are these peer-review papers that show specifically that EU to be debunked? Right, you've got nothing, just links to pseudo-skeptic blog sites run by the real religious fanatics of the BB creation story.

All beware of clicking Cap'n Stupids links, last time I did I got a virus and worms from Timmy's blog site.
barakn
5 / 5 (4) Sep 06, 2014
All beware of clicking Cap'n Stupids links, last time I did I got a virus and worms from Timmy's blog site. -cd85

I clicked the links, and Tim's blog is stripped down HTML. Not only are there not any scripts that could load a virus/worm, there really aren't even things as complicated as images. It's about as close as you can get to the way the internet looked 20 years ago, despite the up-to-date critiques EU fringe theories. I can only draw one conclusion: cantdrive85 lied about the viruses and worms in a pathetic and bald-faced attempt at censorship using fear to prevent clicks. I encourage everyone to report this disgusting behavior as abuse. If you're not familiar with the interface, the Report link will show up in the lower right corner of each post if you hover your mouse near it.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (4) Sep 06, 2014
All beware of clicking Cap'n Stupids links, last time I did I got a virus and worms from Timmy's blog site. -cd85

I clicked the links, and Tim's blog is stripped down HTML. Not only are there not any scripts that could load a virus/worm, there really aren't even things as complicated as images. It's about as close as you can get to the way the internet looked 20 years ago, despite the up-to-date critiques EU fringe theories. I can only draw one conclusion: cantdrive85 lied about the viruses and worms in a pathetic and bald-faced attempt at censorship using fear to prevent clicks. I encourage everyone to report this disgusting behavior as abuse. If you're not familiar with the interface, the Report link will show up in the lower right corner of each post if you hover your mouse near it.

Funny, you didn't request Cap'n Stupid to be reported when he did the exact same thing in re to LANL website. And yes, Timmy's arguments are almost 20 years old and still falacious
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
I clicked the links, and Tim's blog is stripped down HTML. Not only are there not any scripts that could load a virus/worm, there really aren't even things as complicated as images
@barakn
he is referring to a problem that I had recently from his thunderbolts site. I checked one of his links which was to thunderbolts and my computer crashed from some malware or virus... I think it was a virus
I think it was due to the thunderbutts site, he claims that it is not

Considering that the only pages I had open at the time were Gmail, MIT, PhysOrg, his link and a study from http://www.pppl.gov/
I concluded it must have come from his site
sounds logical to me

I will not use his references again unless they are to a reputable site, which angers him because he can't seem to be able to produce any links to reputable peer reviewed journals with impacts in astrophysics showing he is correct. The only real reference he uses is his pseudoscience site
Captain Stumpy
4.7 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
So Cap'n Stupid, when are you gonna unwrap your lips from Thompson's junk?
@cd
you have no science supporting your conjecture, so you attack: http://sci-ence.o...-flags2/

Ironic your "proof" is to a blog site
As well as PhysOrg, which if you read the comments, Tim Thompson adds links and references to reputable science completely debunking your EU

guess you missed that... which is ODD since you were the EU acolyte that was thoroughly debunked. Goldfish bowl memory?
Where are these peer-review papers that show specifically that EU to be debunked?
If you will follow the comments here: http://phys.org/n...ggs.html

you will find EU debunked with physics, references, studies as well as common sense

you will also see a lack of ability to comprehend internet, servers etc from the EU acolyte Cantdrive, when he assumes using a server ads credibility to the religion he posts.

at least I know CD is not capable of planting a virus due to lack of intelligence
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2014
Right, you've got nothing, just links to pseudo-skeptic blog sites
@cd
I can also add the other comment sections from PhysOrg where Tim Thompson continues to debunk the EU pseudoscience with links, references and reputable science

Would that help?
I know you seem to have forgotten all about them, but I have saved every comment for a study I am participating in involving people like you who cannot accept empirical evidence or reality and cling to known fallacious pseudoscience.

Thanks for your feedback
Jixo
1 / 5 (2) Sep 08, 2014
The main clue for solar cycle is quite apparent - it's eleven years standing period, which is equal to orbital period of Jupiter (with some small superposition of another planets). These planets affects the location of barycenter (center of mass) of solar system and the solar plasma rotates around it, being dragged bellow and above solar equator with Corriolis force. Once the barycenter appears bellow surface of Sun, this mechanism cannot apply and the solar activity stalls. This mechanism is therefore also responsible for certain climatic periods, like the Gleissberg cycle, especially when the contribution of another planets gets considered. The fact, that the astronomers can ignore such an easy and trivial explanation for centuries speaks for itself.
no fate
1 / 5 (2) Sep 08, 2014
I reject your claim entirely.


LMAO...oooohhh...ouch.

"I believe hydrogen self compresses to form stars, matter self compresses out of our universe leaving only it's gravity behind and 75 % of all matter exists outside the EM spectrum and is undetectable other than it's gravitational influence." - Cornerstones of Mainstream Astrophysics

Thank God you reject my claim. The above is your reality...and I love watching you guys defend it as though math makes it real.

Just because garbage is peer reviewed, doesn't change the fact that it is garbage.

As I said, I had four links compressor boy, but if you want I can just quote text from Yeps link which supports my claim..actually, you can read it yourself. Do you need help opening the link...it's pretty easy...

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