NASA detects a hot batch of new sunspots, suggesting increased solar activity

Pablo Tucker
June 2, 2020

NASA scientists have recorded the largest solar flare from a group of sunspots on the surface of the Sun since 2017.

"Nonetheless, it was the first M-class flare since October 2017 - and scientists will be watching to see if the sun is indeed beginning to wake up".

It can take 12 months to confirm minimum solar activity, by which point the Sun should be out of that part of the cycle. These occurrences are actually mild in comparison to other solar flares, but when they are heading towards Earth can cause radio blackouts in the polar areas and radiation storms in near-Earth space that is rather unsafe for astronauts.

The most recent solar flare, which was detected last Friday morning, wasn't powerful enough to do that, or even powerful enough to prompt NASA to send an alert about it, but in an announcement the next day the agency said it could be the first signs that the sun's solar cycle is ramping up.

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. The solar minimum is defined by having the lowest number of sunspots in a cycle, so there needs to be a consistent increase before the base can be determined.


With the recent solar flare emitted by the Sun, scientists believe that this could mean that the massive star is about to enter a new cycle filled with increased solar activity.

"It takes at least six months of solar observations and sunspot-counting after a minimum to know when it's occurred".

It means that solar minimum is only recognisable after the fact - you can't say "we're now in solar minimum" as it takes up to 12 months to confirm - by which point we would be out of solar minimum.

"Just because the sunspot numbers go up or down in a given month doesn't mean it won't reverse course the next month, only to go back again the month after that". At time of writing, there had been 30 consecutive days with no sunspots.

An M-class flare is "medium-sized" and if hitting the Earth directly can cause brief radio blackouts over the polar regions and minor radiation storms. During times of high activity, called the solar maximum, sunspots and rashes are frequent. It was pretty mild as per solar flare standards since it wasn't pointed directly at Earth clocking in at just M1.1 on the 10-point scale.


The cycles have been measured since 1755 and this would be the 25th in the chain. But if more flares show up, we could have confirmation that the Sun's poles have performed their regular switcheroo. According to SpaceWeather.com, so far 2020 has been free of sunspots for 79 percent of the time.

It's not known what drives these cycles, but the poles switch when the Sun's magnetic field is at its weakest, also known as solar minimum.

Sunspots are dark magnetic fields that dot the face of the Sun - as seen in this artist's illustration of NASA's Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun.

The solar minimum, by contrast, is a period of time when the Sun is fairly quiet. If that were the case, the current cycle, number 24 (that is the amount of solar cycles studied up to now by science) could have come to its end.


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