The most intense solar maximum in fifty years is coming. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one," she says. If correct, the years ahead could produce a burst of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.
|Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare late on February 15, the largest flare since Dec. 2006 |
Researchers have known about the solar cycle since the mid-1800s. Graphs of sunspot numbers resemble a roller coaster, going up and down with an approximately 11-year period. At first glance, it looks like a regular pattern, but predicting the peaks and valleys has proven troublesome. Cycles vary in length from about 9 to 14 years. Some peaks are high, others low. The valleys are usually brief, lasting only a couple of years, but sometimes they stretch out much longer.
In the 17th century the sun plunged into a 70-year period of spotlessness known as the Maunder Minimum that still baffles scientists.
Right now, the solar cycle is leaving a valley-the deepest of the past century. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare.
Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in 'safe mode' and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.
"Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we're making rapid progress," says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. "NASA's fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what's happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment."
Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance:
STEREO, SDO and ACE.
SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA's fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun's extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth's atmosphere to solar variability.
|On April 19, 2010, SDO observed one of the most massive eruptions in years. Earth was not in the line of fire ... this time|
Bogdan's favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997. "Where would we be without it?" he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.
NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—"but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses," notes Fisher. "This is a good example of space science supporting modern society."
"I believe we're on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather." Fisher concludes. "We take this very seriously indeed."
One thing is for sure and has general consensus, a storm is coming.
see also The sun can take us to stone age
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by dailycosmicnews) from materials provided by Science@NASA. The original article was written by Dr. Tony Phillips.