Our sun is incredibly important to our survival. We’d like to make sure it’s pleasant, warm, and happy at all times, but our closest star goes through a variety of moods like everyone else. These sun cycles include times of increased activity, with sunspots and sun flares shooting up regularly, even silent stretches in which sunspots and sun flares are much rarer.
Just a couple of days ago, NASA helped detect a new batch of sunspots and the flares that formed on them. In a new blog postNASA explains that the flares were not particularly powerful and were not registered with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, but NASA’s own hardware was able to detect them. The space agency suggests that sunspots and flares could be an indication that the star is becoming more active once again.
The Sun generally runs in cycles that last about 11 years on average. During times of high activity, called the solar maximum, sunspots and rashes are frequent. It is during these times that the Earth is most at risk of being impacted by a coronal mass ejection, which is what happens when the Sun throws charged particles into space at incredibly high speeds. If Earth is in the wrong place at the wrong time, that kind of space weather can hamper communications and cause problems with the spacecraft in orbit.
The solar minimum, by contrast, is a period of time when the Sun is fairly calm. Investigators believe we are in the middle of a solar minimum right now, so the sighting of new sunspots and flares may seem strange, but as Spaceweather reportsThe newly identified features disappeared so quickly that observers didn’t even have time to catalog them, suggesting that the solar minimum is still in full swing.
However, the fact that sunspots appeared suggests that we may be slowly leaving the solar minimum and returning to a period of more intense solar activity. Calculating the end of a solar minimum is actually a bit more complicated than you might think.
“This new sunspot activity could be a sign that the Sun is possibly accelerating to the new cycle and has minimized,” writes NASA. “However, it takes at least six months of sun observations and sunspot count after a minimum to know when it occurred. Because that minimum is defined by the lowest number of sunspots in a cycle, scientists need to see that the numbers are constantly increasing before you can determine exactly when they were at the bottom. That means the solar minimum is an instance only recognizable in hindsight: it could take six to 12 months after the fact to confirm when the minimum really has passed. ” .