(CNN) — Every 11 years, the Sun completes a solar cycle of calm and stormy activity and begins a new one.
Understanding the solar cycle is important because space weather caused by the Sun (flares such as solar flares and coronal mass ejection events) can affect the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets, and astronauts in space. .
And we just got a little more information about how the Sun’s activity might affect us.
The new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019. This was announced by the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel of international experts on Tuesday. It can take up to 10 months to calculate when the new cycle begins, since the Sun is so variable, which is why it was announced on Tuesday.
Solar cycle 25 will be very similar to the one we just experienced for the past 11 years, according to the prediction. The next solar maximum, when the Sun experiences a peak of activity, is expected to occur in July 2025. During that time, solar flares or other flares from the Sun may disrupt communications on Earth.
Solar cycle 24 was the fourth smallest cycle on record and the weakest cycle in 100 years, said Lisa Upton, co-chair of the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel and solar physics at Space Systems Research Corporation, during a news conference Tuesday.
While solar cycle 24 was below average, it was not without risk. An epic storm emerged from the Sun in July 2012, but it did not collide with Earth.
“Just because it’s a below-average solar cycle doesn’t mean there is no risk of extreme space weather,” said Doug Biesecker, co-chair of the panel and solar physicist at NOAA’s Center for Space Weather Prediction, in a statement. «The impact of the Sun in our daily life is real and it is there. (We have) staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year because the Sun is always capable of giving us something to forecast.
Biesecker likened it to hurricane season. Even if many of the storms don’t make landfall, the few that do might actually matter, which is why space weather predictions are so important.
Sunspots, which are dark spots on the Sun, help scientists track solar activity. They are the point of origin for explosive flares and ejection events that release light, solar material, and energy into space.
During the peak of solar activity in the last cycle, 120 sunspots were tracked. Some 115 sunspots are forecast for the peak of this new cycle. By comparison, an above-average active cycle would include more than 200 sunspots.
“We keep a detailed record of the few tiny sunspots that mark the beginning and emergence of the new cycle,” said Frédéric Clette, prediction panelist and director of the World Data Center for the Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations at the Royal Observatory. from Belgium in Brussels. These are the tiny heralds of the giant solar fireworks of the future. It is only by following the general trend for many months that we can determine the turning point between two cycles.
The more scientists learn about the solar cycle, the better they can prepare to predict when these events may occur.
In the course of a solar cycle, the Sun will go from a calm period to a very intense and active one. This activity is tracked by counting the sunspots and how many are visible over time. During the peak of this activity, the Sun’s magnetic poles move. Then the Sun will calm down again during a solar minimum. And this happens approximately every 11 years.
For the past year and a half, the Sun has been quiet and hardly a sunspot was noticed on its surface.
Solar minimum occurred in December 2019. During this period, the Sun is still active, but it is calmer and has fewer sunspots. Since then, activity has slowly increased. The new prediction suggested that the Sun’s activity will peak in July 2025.
A total solar eclipse will cross North America in April 2024, which may give scientists the opportunity to observe the Sun’s activity. They will be able to see solar flares or sunspots during the event.
“We hope that an eclipse near solar maximum will show us not only an impressive corona, but also some large and interesting sunspots on the face of the Sun. To help us learn to live within the atmosphere of an active star and space weather that it creates, ”said Valentín Martínez Pillet, director of the National Solar Observatory in Colorado, in a statement.
Now that we are past the minimum, scientists have predicted that the Sun’s activity will increase for months and years to come as we approach July 2025.
“As we exit solar minimum and approach cycle 25 maximum, it is important to remember solar activity never stops. It changes shape as the pendulum swings, “said Lika Guhathakurta, a solar scientist in the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.
Preparing for the activity of the Sun
Although the panel missed the timing of the maximum during the last cycle, they have improved their prediction methods, Biesecker said.
“We treat the Sun like a big ball of gas, but the hemispheres, the south and the north, behave independently,” he said. “During the last solar cycle, they were out of phase with each other more than ever, which ruined our forecast.”
But monitoring magnetic fields in the Sun’s polar regions has consistently provided the best forecast, he said.
“There is no bad weather, just bad preparation,” said Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Space weather is what it is, our job is to prepare.”
Experts said space weather is moving from a research focus to a more national operational priority in a multitude of agencies. Including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and many others.
This allows for better planning, preparation and protection against the dangers of space weather.
NOAA shares space weather predictions from its Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado. And it has satellites that monitor space weather in real time. It has a direct line to power grid operators to warn them so they can prepare and keep the power on, Biesecker said.
And NASA investigates the near-Earth space environment, which will help improve space weather prediction.
In addition to protecting the technology we depend on, space weather predictions will become increasingly important to astronauts in space.
NASA’s Artemis program is looking for plans to send humans out of low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides, and back to the Moon and then to Mars in the future.
The Gateway, an outpost that will orbit the Moon and allow astronauts to land on the moon, will house research to study space weather and radiation that astronauts and the hardware they use will experience when they return to the Moon. NASA scientists can also use the Gateway to test items that astronauts will trust. These, like food and pharmaceuticals, to see how space weather could affect their efficiency, Bleacher said.
How to prepare for weather events on Earth, anticipating space weather events allows for better preparation on Earth. The agencies are working together to ensure that the space weather paradigm is similar to the climate paradigm.
“Just as NOAA’s National Weather Service makes us a climate-ready nation, what we are heading to be is a space-weather-ready nation,” said Elsayed Talaat, director of the Office of Projects, Planning and Analysis. NOAA Satellite and Information Service in Silver Spring, Maryland.
That includes NOAA’s L-1 space weather monitoring observatory, which is expected to launch in 2024 ahead of the predicted peak of solar cycle 25.
“This is an effort that spans 24 agencies across the government and has transformed space weather from a research perspective to operational knowledge,” said Talaat.