Updated March 15, 2020: See the BOLD print below for the latest.
Has anyone noticed anything different about the Sun? Anything unusual? Well, there’s nothing different, nothing unusual. The Sun is just going through its normal cycle. So, if you’ve looked lately, you’ve probably noticed that Sunspots are becoming rarer. The Sun goes through cycles. These cycles are measured by the number of Sunspots seen on the Sun’s surface, that is, the Earth-facing side. Each cycle lasts for about 11 years, with slight variations of time in each cycle.
The solar cycle was discovered in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, and using other observations, reconstructed the cycle back to 1745. Prior cycles were reconstructed from observations going back as far as Galileo and others in the early 1600’s. We are presently in cycle 24. Right now, the Sunspot number is decreasing, and it has been for some time. Let’s look at the numbers.
Cycle 24 peaked in April, 2014 with 101 Sunspots, the weakest in a hundred years. There was only 1 day in 2014 with no Sunspots. 2015 had 0 spotless days. 2016 had 32 spotless days. 2017 had 104 spotless days.
At the end of 2018, there were 221 total spotless days, yielding a yearly percentage of 61%. The Sun produced a small group of Sunspots on the first day of 2019, and they rotated all the way around the Western limb of the Sun. All of February was spotless. We had 281 total spotless days in 2019 for a yearly percentage of 77%. The last solar minimum of this magnitude was in 1913 with 311 spotless days. Some of the latest spots have been part of the new solar cycle (see below). The NOAA/NASA Solar Cycle Prediction Panel had issued a new forecast. They believe that the current Solar Minimum will reach its deepest point in April 2020.
As of today, we have had 55 spotless days, yielding a yearly percentage of 73%.
Sunspots have a magnetic North and South Pole. The poles align with the Sun’s equator. Every solar cycle, the Sun’s poles reverse, as do the sunspot’s poles. On March 5, a small magnetic disturbance started to appear and was oriented perpendicular to the Sun’s equator. The pole of several sunspots last year were oriented opposite to the Sun’s poles. Those indicated that the poles are about to reverse and usher in a new solar cycle (cycle 25). This latest group also has reversed polarity. The questions is: when will it happen? Apparently it is starting now.
But even with this minimum, there is still some activity to be observed. There is still the infrequent small (some large) prominence, flare or CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). And then there are the “holes” in the Sun’s atmosphere (coronal holes) that let stronger than normal streams of solar wind (charged particles), target the Earth’s atmosphere and produce those awesome auroras in the high latitudes. And on rare occasions, auroras have been seen in the upper US states. So if you have a solar telescope, keep watching, it’s not hopeless.
Keep checking back, we’ll keep you updated.