NASA Satellites Capture Start of New Solar Cycle

January 11, 2008
NASA Satellites Capture Start of New Solar Cycle
The first official active region of solar cycle 24 as it appeared to the STEREO behind spacecraft observing in ultraviolet light on Jan. 4, 2008. Click image for enlargement. Credit: NASA / STEREO

NASA scientists say a new solar cycle is beginning, and this could have important repercussions for space-based technology ranging from GPS navigation to weather satellites.

On January 4, a reversed-polarity sunspot appeared, signaling the start of Solar Cycle 24. A sunspot is an area of magnetic activity on the surface of the sun that appears as a dark spot on its surface. Solar activity waxes and wanes in 11-year cycles and the previous solar cycle, Solar Cycle 23, peaked in 2000-2002 with many furious solar storms.

Lately, the sun has been experiencing very few flares, sunspots, or activity of any kind -- a period of quiet called solar minimum. Now, the sun’s seasons are changing again. David Hathaway, solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., says, “New solar cycles always begin with a high-latitude, reversed polarity sunspot."

"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 sunspot that appeared January 4 fits both these criteria. It is high latitude (30 degrees N) and magnetically reversed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has named the spot AR10,981, or “sunspot 981” for short. Sunspot 981 was small -- only about as wide as Earth, which counts as small on the grand scale of the Sun -- and it has already faded away. But its three-day appearance January 4 through January 6 was enough to convince most solar physicists that Solar Cycle 24 is underway. The onset of a new solar cycle is significant because of our increasingly space-based technological society.

“Solar storms can disable satellites that we depend on for weather forecasts and GPS navigation,” says Hathaway. Radio bursts from solar flares can directly interfere with cell phone reception while coronal mass ejections (CMEs) hitting Earth can cause actual power outages.

Air travel can be affected, too. When airplanes fly over the poles during solar storms, they can experience radio blackouts, navigation errors and computer reboots all caused by space radiation. Avoiding the poles during solar storms solves the problem, but it costs extra time, money and fuel to take the longer route.

NASA is gearing up to study the active sun during Cycle 24 with the launch of a new spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory. “SDO is a very special observatory,” says project scientist Dean Pesnell at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Using a technique called helioseismic imaging, the spacecraft will be able to look inside the sun where solar activity begins. SDO will join SOHO, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), Hinode and other missions already in orbit to improve our understanding of solar storms and lay the groundwork for better space weather forecasts.”

"The beginning of the new solar cycle occurs just as the STEREO Mission is completing its first year of operation," says Mike Kaiser, STEREO Project Scientist at NASA Goddard. "The twin STEREO spacecraft are now 45 degrees apart and are in good position to triangulate on solar activity from the new cycle to provide better understanding of solar storms that can disrupt our electronic lives. Ultimately, the research done by STEREO and other solar missions will lead to more accurate predictions of when solar storms will impact Earth."

“Intense solar activity won't begin immediately,” notes Hathaway. “Solar cycles usually take a few years to build from solar minimum (where we are now) to Solar max, expected in 2011 or 2012.”

Source: by Jennifer Morcone and Rob Gutro, NASA's Marshall and Goddard space flight centers

Explore further: Waves on Sun give NASA new insight into space weather forecasting

Related Stories

Scientists reconstruct space history with ancient texts

April 5, 2017

Ice cores and ancient sediments can be gleaned for clues to weather and climate in the past. But astronomical phenomena—such as solar flares or auroras—at best leave only faint environmental traces lacking in specificity. ...

Planetary waves, first found on Earth, are discovered on Sun

March 27, 2017

The same kind of large-scale planetary waves that meander through the atmosphere high above Earth's surface may also exist on the Sun, according to a new study led by a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research ...

Sun's impact on climate change quantified for first time

March 27, 2017

For the first time, model calculations show a plausible way that fluctuations in solar activity could have a tangible impact on the climate. Studies funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation expect human-induced global ...

Recommended for you

New survey hints at exotic origin for the Cold Spot

April 25, 2017

A supervoid is unlikely to explain a 'Cold Spot' in the cosmic microwave background, according to the results of a new survey, leaving room for exotic explanations like a collision between universes. The researchers, led ...

Astronomers detect dozens of new quasars and galaxies

April 25, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of astronomers led by Yoshiki Matsuoka of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) has detected a treasure trove of new high-redshift quasars (or quasi-stellar objects) and luminous galaxies. ...

Preliminary results of Breakthrough Listen project released

April 25, 2017

(Phys.org)—The team of researchers working on the Breakthrough Listen project (based at the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center) has released preliminary findings after sifting through several petabytes ...

Team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history

April 25, 2017

From the earliest days of our solar system's history, collisions between astronomical objects have shaped the planets and changed the course of their evolution. Studying the early bombardment history of Mars, scientists at ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Piquant
not rated yet Jan 13, 2008
Regarding NASA's long range forecasts on the Solar Cycles; they show cycle 24 as being the last, more active one for some time.
http://science.na...ange.htm

Following Cycle 24, the sun moves into a "minimum" due to slowing of the Sun's plasma convection currents. The sun does go through cycles of it's "Great Conveyor Belt" (NASA's term).

Could cycle #25 herald a period of dangerous cold? A return of the "Dalton Minimum"?

John Casey, a consultant to NASA, has spoken of a "Relational Cycle Theory" that speaks of this.

I am wondering as this is the start of Cycle #24, should we consider or look into past solor studies, and corroborate them with cold periods? Advance the possibility of a coming cold minimum?

I feel science should examine ALL possibilities vs. espousing the most popular mantras to perhaps preserve tenures or get press time. I hear so little about the possibility of Relational Cycles on the Sun in news.

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.