Is a New Solar Cycle Beginning?

Dec 17, 2007
Is a New Solar Cycle Beginning?
Solar Cycle 23 is coming to an end. What's next? Image credit: NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center.

The solar physics community is abuzz this week. No, there haven't been any great eruptions or solar storms. The source of the excitement is a modest knot of magnetism that popped over the sun's eastern limb on Dec. 11th, pictured below in a pair of images from the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

It may not look like much, but "this patch of magnetism could be a sign of the next solar cycle," says solar physicist David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

For more than a year, the sun has been experiencing a lull in activity, marking the end of Solar Cycle 23, which peaked with many furious storms in 2000--2003. "Solar minimum is upon us," he says.

The big question now is, when will the next solar cycle begin?

It could be starting now.

Is a New Solar Cycle Beginning?
From SOHO, a UV-wavelength image of the sun and a map showing positive (white) and negative (black) magnetic polarities. The new high-latitude active region is magnetically reversed, marking it as a harbinger of a new solar cycle.

"New solar cycles always begin with a high-latitude, reversed polarity sunspot," explains Hathaway. "Reversed polarity " means a sunspot with opposite magnetic polarity compared to sunspots from the previous solar cycle. "High-latitude" refers to the sun's grid of latitude and longitude. Old cycle spots congregate near the sun's equator. New cycle spots appear higher, around 25 or 30 degrees latitude.

The region that appeared on Dec. 11th fits both these criteria. It is high latitude (24 degrees N) and magnetically reversed. Just one problem: There is no sunspot. So far the region is just a bright knot of magnetic fields. If, however, these fields coalesce into a dark sunspot, scientists are ready to announce that Solar Cycle 24 has officially begun.

Many forecasters believe Solar Cycle 24 will be big and intense. Peaking in 2011 or 2012, the cycle to come could have significant impacts on telecommunications, air traffic, power grids and GPS systems. (And don't forget the Northern Lights!) In this age of satellites and cell phones, the next solar cycle could make itself felt as never before.

The furious storms won't start right away, however. Solar cycles usually take a few years to build to a frenzy and Cycle 24 will be no exception. "We still have some quiet times ahead," says Hathaway.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on a promising little active region. Will it become the first sunspot of a new solar cycle?

Source: by Dr. Tony Phillips, Science@NASA

Explore further: Europe sat-nav launch glitch linked to frozen pipe

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Why global warming is taking a break

Aug 19, 2014

The average temperature on Earth has barely risen over the past 16 years. ETH researchers have now found out why. And they believe that global warming is likely to continue again soon.

Recommended for you

Europe sat-nav launch glitch linked to frozen pipe

11 hours ago

A frozen fuel pipe in the upper stage of a Soyuz launcher likely caused the failure last month to place two European navigation satellites in orbit, a source close to the inquiry said Wednesday.

Cyanide ice in Titan's atmosphere

13 hours ago

Gigantic polar clouds of hydrogen cyanide roughly four times the area of the UK are part of the impressive atmospheric diversity of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, a new study led by Leiden Observatory, ...

Video: Alleged meteor caught on Russian dash cam (again)

17 hours ago

Thanks to the ubiquity of dashboard-mounted video cameras in Russia yet another bright object has been spotted lighting up the sky over Siberia, this time a "meteor-like object" seen on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 27.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

quantum_flux
2.7 / 5 (3) Dec 17, 2007
So, now would be a good time for NASA to launch manned space missions to the moon or unmanned space missions in general! These cycles last 11 years, so NASA should probably do something spectacular while we're at minimum time, right!?