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NASA says New Solar Cycle has begun, Sun shows changes

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Scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the new solar cycle 25 had begun. These cycles affect the quality of life as well as technology on the Earth and in space. The prediction panel of Solar Cycle 25 is a group of international experts co-sponsored by NASA and NOAA.

What is a solar cycle?

Sun is highly active and is made up of constantly moving electrically charged gases that generate powerful magnetic force. The areas covered with this force are called Magnetic Fields. The magnetic fields can stretch, twist, and tangle because of the movement of gases. This causes motion on the surface which is called the solar activity which is varied with the stages of the solar cycle. On average these solar cycles last for a period of 11 years

Lika Guhathakurta, a solar scientist at the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement that it is imperative to remember that solar activity is incessant and varies with every swing of the pendulum as the earth emerges from solar minimum and approaches the maximum of Solar cycle 25.  

 

How do scientists track solar activity?

These solar cycles are tracked using sunspots. Sunspots are the dark blotches on the surface of the sun; these are affected by solar activity and are linked with the origins of giant explosions. Such explosions include solar fares that can spew light, solar material and energy into space.

NASA, NOAA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other federal agencies and departments work on National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan in order to make sure that we are fully prepared for any space weather hazard. It protects us from the space weather as NOAA looks into the fields of prediction and real-time space weather monitoring via satellites. On the other hand, NASA is its research arm; it works on providing a more comprehensive understanding of near-Earth space, and ultimately, forecasting models.

What are sunspots?

An area on the sun’s surface that looks like a dark blotch is called the Sunspot. It is comparatively cooler than the other parts of the body. Sunspots make up the sun’s magnetic field and may be as huge as 50,000 km in diameter. The magnetic field thus created blankets the solar system and protects it from any precarious cosmic radiation. A sunspot may release a humongous amount of energy creating solar flares when it reaches up to a diameter of 50,000 km.   

Solar minimum is the beginning of a solar cycle, wherein there are only a few sunspots. On Tuesday, the scientists declared that the solar minimum for Solar Cycle 25 happened in December 2019 and it took them time to confirm this news because of the uncertainty and variability of the Sun. It is predicted that solar maximum which occurs in the middle of the cycle will be seen by July of 2025. It is also said that this cycle would be similar to the previous one that is ‘below average’ but not without risks.

 

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Why is it important to study the Solar Cycle?

Having in-depth knowledge about the space weather is very crucial for understanding as well as analyzing the space radiation an astronaut is exposed to. Scientists from various organizations and space institutes are working day and night on developing better predictive models. With the hope that we would one day be able to forecast space weather just like meteorologists forecast the weather on Earth. In the words of Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters- “There is no bad weather, just bad preparation. Space weather is what it is – our job is to prepare.”

The study of the solar cycle is crucial to this preparation. In order to examine the beginning of a solar cycle, the panel responsible for prediction consulted and analyzed data on sunspots on monthly basis. It is made available from the World Data Centre for the Sunspot Index and Long-term solar observations. This center is located at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, which tracks sunspots and pinpoints the solar cycle’s highs and lows.

Frédéric Clette is the center’s director and one of the prediction panelists. In a statement, she said that the center keeps a detailed account of the slightest of changes in the tiny spots which mark the onset and emergence of the new solar cycle. These are the diminutive heralds of future giant solar fireworks and it is only by tracking the general trend over many months that we humans will have enough knowledge to determine the tipping point between two cycles.

What will Solar Cycle 25 look like?

We missed the solar minimum in December 2019 due to the possibility of variations on its surface but now scientists expect the Sun’s activity to speed up to reach the maximum which is expected in July 2025. Doug Biesecker is the panel co-chair and solar physicist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado told us that this new cycle is expected to be tantamount to the previous cycle in terms of strength but not without risk. Biesecker also said that even though the solar cycle 25 is a below-average solar cycle it does not necessarily mean that it would not bring any risk of extreme space weather with it. 

The Sun has a continuous impact on our daily lives. The Space Weather Prediction Center is working 24/7 round the clock and 365 days a year; the reason being that the sun always has something or the other to offer us to forecast.  

With the patterns of the Sun changing forming new bubbles on the surface, scientists are bamboozled only with the thought of imagining the new cycle. The answer discovered as of now is probably that it would resemble the past cycle, which is the last 11 years, which is the average cycle of any solar cycle. Solar Cycle 25 will keep on unraveling surprises while scientists keep experimenting with new models to see how accurate are their predictions. However, it will take us at least five to six years to say anything with certainty.

 

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