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The Sun is super chill right now

Published Sep 16th, 2020 7:11PM EDT
solar cycle
Image: NASA Goddard / SDO

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  • Scientists predict that the upcoming solar cycle will be calm, as was the previous one.
  • Fewer solar storms and less material flowing out from the Sun toward the Earth and Moon is advantageous for space exploration.
  • The Sun operates on an 11-year cycle between high and low activity.

Just like everything else, the Sun goes through cycles. Our nearest star seems to be on a relatively predictable 11-year cycle, allowing scientists to study various aspects of it at specific points in time. It moves between periods of high solar activity, called the Solar Maximum, and periods of calm called the Solar Minimum. Sometimes the cycle is packed with intense space weather which can cause problems for us here on Earth, but lately, that’s not been the case.

Now, scientists say that as the Sun enters its new cycle — the 25th cycle that’s been tracked so far — it seems we’re in for another stretch of relative calm. As NPR reports, scientists are largely in agreement that the Sun seems to be pretty chill right now, and that while solar storms are still a possibility, we should expect lower than average activity for the time being.

Solar storms, or periods of time where the Sun is spewing a lot of charged particles in every direction, can be hazardous for things like satellites and space stations. They tend to trigger brilliant auroras, which are always lovely to see, but the radiation can ultimately interfere with communications systems here on Earth, and that’s not a good thing.

A less-active-than-normal solar cycle doesn’t mean our Sun is in trouble at all, it’s just the natural ebb and flow of our star. In fact, a less active Sun means that missions like the Parker Solar Probe may be able to capture even better images and date of the star’s surface in a relatively relaxed state.

“We were very close in predicting Solar Cycle 24. It was within what we consider to be our error bar of a sunspot number of plus or minus ten,” Doug Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said. “We did get the timing of maximum wrong. And the reason for that was because we treated the sun as one big ball of gas, but the hemispheres, the south and the north, behave independently. The last solar cycle, they were out of phase with each other more so than ever before, which sort of ruined our forecast a bit.”

The solar weather can also have an impact on planned missions to places like the Moon. When exposed on the lunar surface, the crew would also be exposed to whatever the Sun is throwing their way, and a quiet Sun is far more optimal than a noisy one when it comes to safe adventures on the Moon.