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A Yawn From the Napping Sun

18 June 2009 (All day)
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National Solar Observatory/GONG (main image); SOHO/MDI (inset)

Wake-up call. The sun's jet streams (in red, right) have reached their critical position, and soon the first sunspots of the new solar cycle may mar the star's currently placid-looking surface (inset).

Maybe old Sol didn't hear the alarm clock. After a mysterious 2-year delay, the next 11-year solar cycle seems ready to begin, scientists say. That means the reemergence of sunspots, and with them periodic electromagnetic assaults on global navigation, communications, and power supplies--as well as brilliant auroras in the polar regions.

For unknown reasons, the sun goes through cycles of activity that last about 11 years. During this time, the number of sunspots on its surface increases to a point called a solar maximum, in which the star's magnetic field grows strongest, and then gradually drops, with a corresponding weakening of its magnetism. These dark, Earth-sized zones of cooler temperatures and powerful magnetic forces sometimes disappear altogether. However, sunspots haven't stayed away this long--2 years--in nearly a century.

Scientists had been at a loss to explain the lull, as ScienceNOW reported last month (ScienceNOW, 8 May), but now a group from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson, Arizona, thinks it has found the reason. It has to do with a magnetic phenomenon called solar jet streams. Every 11 years, the sun simultaneously generates twin streams of plasma at each of its poles. Unlike the jet streams on Earth, the solar versions are magnetized and travel only toward the equator. This migration takes place very slowly--at about 10 kilometers per hour. For reasons still not understood, when the streams reach 22 degrees of latitude, north and south, they touch off a new solar cycle, and the sunspots reappear.

That is what has just happened on the sun, but with a twist, says NSO scientist Frank Hill. He and colleague Rachel Howe have been tracking the solar jet streams since the mid-1990s using a technique called helioseismology. The method is similar to that used by seismologists to detect and evaluate earthquakes, and it's necessary because the solar streams occur several thousand kilometers beneath the sun's surface. Hill and Howe discovered that the jet streams generated in 1996 have migrated more slowly than normal, taking 13 years to reach the critical 22-degree latitude instead of the usual 11 years.

But now the new solar cycle has begun, and Hill reports that scientists have detected the first sunspot of that cycle. "It's now under way," he told reporters at a news conference in Boulder, Colorado, yesterday. "We are going to rise to the solar maximum in the next few years."

The research amounts to a "reasonable and clever" way to determine why the beginning of the next solar cycle has been tardy, says space scientist Nancy Crooker of Boston University in Massachusetts. And she's excited about the new approach, too. "It is the first time the technology has been available to make detailed, space-based measurements of both the sun and the solar wind under [the] extreme conditions" of an extended solar minimum, she says.

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