It is important to understand the solar cycle, because weather forecasts caused by the sun – eruptions such as solar flares and coronal mass return events – can affect the grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.
And we just got a little more information on how the sun’s activity can affect us.
The new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019, according to a statement from the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel by international experts on Tuesday. It can take as long as 10 months to calculate when the new cycle will start as the sun is so variable which is why it was announced on Tuesday.
Solar cycle 25 will be very similar to the one we have just experienced in the last 1
Solar Cycle 24 was the fourth smallest cycle recorded and the weakest cycle in 100 years, Lisa Upton, co-chair of the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel and solar physicist at the Space Systems Research Corporation, said during a news conference Tuesday.
While solar cycle 24 was below average, it was not without risk. An epic storm erupted from the sun in July 2012, but missed collision with Earth.
“Just because it’s a solar cycle below average does not mean there is no risk of extreme space weather,” said Doug Biesecker, panel chair and solar physicist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, in a statement. “The influence of the sun on our daily lives is real and is there. (We are staffed 24/7, 365 days a year because the sun is always able to give us something to predict.”
Biesecker compared it to hurricane season. Although many of the storms do not land, they could get there really something, which is why weather forecasts for space travel are so important.
Sunspots, which are dark spots on the sun, help scientists track the activity of the sun. They are the starting point for the explosive flares and exhaust events that release light, solar material and energy into space.
During the peak of solar activity in the last cycle, 120 sunspots were tracked. Approximately 115 sunspots are predicted for the peak of this new cycle. By comparison, an above-average active cycle will include more than 200 sunspots.
“We keep a detailed overview of the few small sunspots that mark the start and rise of the new cycle,” said Frédéric Clette, prediction panel and director of the World Data Center for the Sunspot Index and long-term solar observations at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels. “These are the slightest warnings of future giant solar fireworks. It is only by tracking the general trend over many months that we can determine the tipping point between two cycles.”
The more scientists learn about the solar cycle, the better they can prepare to predict when these events may occur.
During a solar cycle, the sun transitions from a quiet period to a very intense and active one. This activity is tracked by counting sunspots on the sun and how many are visible over time. During the peak of this activity, the sun’s magnetic poles turn. Then the sun will be quiet again below a solar minimum. And this takes place approx. every 11 years.
Over the last year and a half, the sun was quiet with barely a sunspot that could be seen on the surface.
The solar minimum occurred in December 2019. During this period, the sun is still active, but it is quieter and has less sunspots. Since then, the sun’s activity has slowly increased. The new prediction indicated that solar activity will peak in July 2025.
A total solar eclipse will cross North America in April 2024, possibly allowing scientists to observe the sun’s activity, such as solar flares or sunspots, during the event.
“We hope that an eclipse close to the sun’s maximum not only shows us an awe – inspiring corona, but also some large, interesting sunspots on the Sun’s face that help us learn about living inside the atmosphere of an active star and space weather it creates, ”said Valentin Martinez Pillet, director of the National Solar Observatory in Colorado, in a statement.
Now that we are above the minimum, scientists have predicted that solar activity will increase in the coming months and years as we approach July 2025.
“As we get out of the solar minimum and approach the maximum of Cycle 25, it is important to remember that solar activity never stops; it changes shape when the pendulum swings,” said Lika Guhathakurta, solar scientist at the Heliophysics Division at NASA headquarters in Washington, in a statement .
Preparing for the activity of the sun
Although the panel got the timing for the maximum wrong during the last cycle, they have improved their prediction methods, Biesecker said.
“We treated the sun like a big gas sphere, but the hemispheres south and north behave independently,” he said. “During the last solar cycle, they were out of phase with each other more than ever before, which ruined our forecast.”
But monitoring the magnetic fields in the sun’s polar regions has consistently provided the best forecast, he said.
“There is no bad weather, just bad preparation,” Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters, said in a statement. “Space weather is what it is – our job is to prepare.”
Experts said space weather is shifting from a research focus to a more national operational priority across a wide range of agencies, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration and many others.
This enables better planning, preparedness and protection against space risks.
The agency NOAA shares space weather forecasts from its Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado and has satellites that monitor space weather in real time. It has a hotline with grid operators to warn them so they can prepare and keep the power on, Biesecker said.
And NASA is investigating the nearest terrestrial environment, which will help improve the prediction of space weather.
In addition to protecting the technology we rely on, space weather predictions will become increasingly important to astronauts in space.
The NASA Artemis program is seeking plans to send humans out of a low-Earth orbit where the International Space Station is located, and back to the moon and on to Mars in the future.
The gateway, an outpost that orbits the moon and allows astronauts to land on the moon, will host research to examine space weather and radiation that astronauts and hardware they use will experience when they return to the moon. Scientists at NASA can also use the Gateway to test things astronauts will rely on, like food and drugs, to see how the weather forecast may affect their effectiveness, Bleacher said.
Like preparing for weather events on Earth, anticipating space weather events allows for better preparation on Earth. Agencies work together to ensure that the space weather paradigm is similar to the weather paradigm.
“Just as NOAA’s National Weather Service makes us a weather-ready nation, what we drive to be is a space-weather-ready nation,” said Elsayed Talaat, director of the projects, planning and analysis office for NOAA’s satellite and information service. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
This includes NOAA’s Space Weather Follow-On L-1 observatory, which is expected to launch in 2024 ahead of the expected peak of solar cycle 25.
“This is an effort involving 24 agencies across the government, and it has transformed space weather from a research perspective into operational knowledge,” Talaat said.