Scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently announced their predictions about the new solar cycle, called Solar Cycle 25, which they believe has begun. Solar cycles have implications for life and technology on Earth as well as astronauts in space. Here we will learn what Solar Cycle 25 is and why is it important to study the solar activity.
Our Sun is a huge ball of electrically-charged hot gas. This charged gas moves, generating a powerful magnetic field. The Sun’s magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle.
Every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips. This means that the Sun’s north and south poles switch places. Then it takes about another 11 years for the Sun’s north and south poles to flip back again. As the magnetic fields change, so does the amount of activity on the Sun’s surface.
Tracking solar activity
Scientists track a solar cycle by using sunspots, which are the dark blotches on the Sun that are associated with solar activity. Sunspots are associated as the origins for giant explosions such as solar flares that can spew light, energy and solar material into space.
What are sunspots?
A Sunspot is an area on the Sun that appears dark on the surface and is relatively cooler than the surrounding parts. The beginning of a solar cycle is typically characterised by only a few sunspots and is therefore referred to as a solar minimum.
Experts announced that the solar minimum for Solar Cycle 25 occurred in December 2019. It took time for them to announce this because of the variability of the Sun.
Scientists predict a solar maximum (middle of the solar cycle) will be reached by July 2025 and that this solar cycle will be as strong as the last solar cycle, which was a “below-average cycle” but not without risks.
Studying solar activity
Solar activity can affect satellite electronics and limit their lifetime. Radiation can be dangerous for astronauts who do work on the outside of the International Space Station. If scientists predict an active time in the solar cycle, satellites can be put into safe mode and astronauts can delay their spacewalks.
It’s important to understand the solar cycle because space weather caused by the sun — eruptions like solar flares and coronal mass ejection events — can impact the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.
Solar flare up
In 1967, a major solar flare almost led to a nuclear war during the Cold War, as per a space.com report. In May that year, the US Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar sites in Alaska, Greenland and the UK got jammed due to the flare, causing US officials to mistakenly hold the Soviet Union responsible for the radar failures. It was only after scientists at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) informed US leaders of the solar flare that the matter deescalated.
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