Is a New Solar Cycle Beginning?

December 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: Team proposes new space-weather forecasting method

Related Stories

Team proposes new space-weather forecasting method

December 18, 2017

Scientists from Skoltech, the University of Graz and the Royal Observatory of Belgium have developed a method to forecast the strength of the 11-year solar activity cycle. The results of this study may shed light into the ...

Solar minimum surprisingly constant

November 17, 2017

Using more than a half-century of observations, Japanese astronomers have discovered that the microwaves coming from the sun at the minimums of the past five solar cycles have been the same each time, despite large differences ...

September 2017's intense solar activity viewed from space

October 27, 2017

September 2017 saw a spate of solar activity, with the Sun emitting 27 M-class and four X-class flares and releasing several powerful coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, between Sept. 6-10. Solar flares are powerful bursts of ...

NASA's TSIS-1 keeps an eye on sun's power over ozone

November 22, 2017

High in the atmosphere, above weather systems, is a layer of ozone gas. Ozone is Earth's natural sunscreen, absorbing the sun's most harmful ultraviolet radiation and protecting living things below. But ozone is vulnerable ...

Solar Cycle Driven by More than Sunspots

September 17, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Challenging conventional wisdom, new research finds that the number of sunspots provides an incomplete measure of changes in the Sun's impact on Earth over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. The study, ...

Recommended for you

New research challenges existing models of black holes

January 19, 2018

Chris Packham, associate professor of physics and astronomy at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), has collaborated on a new study that expands the scientific community's understanding of black holes in our galaxy ...

Neutron-star merger yields new puzzle for astrophysicists

January 18, 2018

The afterglow from the distant neutron-star merger detected last August has continued to brighten - much to the surprise of astrophysicists studying the aftermath of the massive collision that took place about 138 million ...

Meteoritic stardust unlocks timing of supernova dust formation

January 18, 2018

Dust is everywhere—not just in your attic or under your bed, but also in outer space. To astronomers, dust can be a nuisance by blocking the light of distant stars, or it can be a tool to study the history of our universe, ...

New technique for finding life on Mars

January 18, 2018

Researchers demonstrate for the first time the potential of existing technology to directly detect and characterize life on Mars and other planets. The study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, used miniaturized scientific ...

1 comment

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!?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.