Noticed a lack of sun-centric headlines? Been wondering when the last solar flare was? You’re not alone! Despite going through the much hyped “solar maximum”, our nearest star has decided to take an unscheduled break with the stellar turmoil and, well, take a nap.
Every 11 years or so, the sun undergoes a period of intense activity. The solar magnetic field becomes stressed and huge arcs of magnetized plasma project through the solar photosphere (colloquially known as the solar surface). It is during this time that regions of intense activity erupt, creating blotches across the solar disk known as sunspots. This period usually heralds a huge magnetic reversal through the whole of the sun, an event known as a “Grand Reversal” — signs of which have recently been detected by ground-based observatories.
The number of sunspots ebb and flow throughout the solar cycle, but as we are currently experiencing the crescendo of “Solar Cycle 24″ one would expect the sun to be a gigantic, roiling mess of magnetic fieldlines, flares, coronal mass ejections and rough space weather. But if you look at the above observation from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, anyone would think the sun is in fact near solar minimum.
Just one sunspot interrupts the sun’s blank stare.
“One possible explanation is that Solar Max is double-peaked and we are in the valley between peaks,” said NASA’s Tony Phillips on Spaceweather.com. “If so, solar activity could surge again in late 2013-2014. No one can say for sure, though.”
Although the sun has some predictable behavior — such as its approximate 11-year cycle — solar physicists continue to have difficulty in predicting the ferocity of the next cycle. Long term trends, such as the apparent weakening of the sun’s magnetic field, only hint at what is going on inside the mysterious solar interior.
But just because there’s a single island of activity currently on the solar surface, don’t let the sun fool you into thinking we’re in for an extended period of calm. The internal solar dynamo could kick up a notch and blast us with flares and CMEs in the coming weeks or months.
One thing is for certain, however, our nearest star still hides many secrets. This could just be the calm before the real solar storm.
Image credit: NASA/SDO