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A New Solar Cycle Promises Calm Space Weather

Experts say the sun’s next decade will likely feature a low number of events like solar flares that can disrupt power grids and satellites

A split image showing an active Sun during solar maximum (on the left, taken in 2014) and a quiet Sun during solar minimum (on the right, taken in 2019). (NASA / SDO)
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Space weather may sound like one forecast Earthlings can comfortably ignore, but it actually has the potential to wreak serious havoc. Stormy space weather would mean more intense electromagnetic activity on our favorite local ball of hot roiling gas (the sun), which can mess with the operation of satellites, power grids and space travel, reports Ashley Strickland of CNN.

Fortunately, researchers are forecasting a period of relatively placid space weather as the sun enters its 25th solar cycle, reports Nell Greenfieldboyce of NPR. An uneventful solar forecast is a good one as far as humanity is concerned.

Solar cycles last roughly 11 years, and we’re about nine months into number 25, which began in December 2019, according to a statement released by the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, a joint effort between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The end of one solar cycle and the start of a new one is marked by what’s called the solar minimum. This is when the sun has the lowest level of electromagnetic activity, marked by relatively few sun spots, which increase in number when the sun’s hot gasses are swirling more violently, and a flip-flop of the sun’s magnetic field. That means at the start of each new solar cycle the sun’s north and south poles switch.

The predicted smooth sailing for Solar Cycle 25 echoes the quietude of the 24th cycle which ran from 2008 to 2019, reports Meghan Bartels for Space.com.

"The last cycle, Solar Cycle 24, was the fourth smallest cycle on record and the weakest cycle in 100 years," Lisa Upton, an astronomer with the Space Systems Research Corporation and co-chair of the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, tells NPR.

But, according to NPR, even the hum drum 24th cycle brought occasional radio blackouts, disruptions in air traffic control, power outages and, more pleasingly, aurorae dancing across the night skies.

As the 25th solar cycle progresses, sun spots and sudden explosions of solar energy called solar flares will become more likely to occur until reaching a predicted peak in July 2025 during the solar maximum. The prediction panel expects this solar cycle to reach a peak of roughly 115 sunspots compared to the last solar maximum, which had a maximum sunspot number of 114, reports Kenneth Chang for the New York Times.

Upton tells the Times that the panel reached a consensus on the new forecast without much trouble. “We’ve gotten very good at modeling the evolution of the polar magnetic fields,” she tells the Times. “This is one of the best indicators for the amplitude of the coming cycle and was one of the main features that the prediction panel looked at.”

Apart from electrical infrastructure and satellites, the solar forecast is also a vital consideration for any plans to send humans into space, according to NPR.

"A trip to the moon can include periods of time when our astronauts will not be protected from space weather by the Earth's magnetic field," Jake Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, tells NPR. "Just like here at home when you go on a trip anywhere, you're going to check the weather report, right? You need to know what to expect."

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