Tag Archives: sun

Parker extends length of science operations during upcoming fifth solar fly-by

The science team for the Parker Solar Probe have decided to extend the period the spacecraft’s instruments are operating during its fifth close fly-by of the Sun, based on the data they have obtained from the first four fly-bys.

On May 9, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe began its longest observation campaign to date. The spacecraft, which has already completed four progressively closer orbits around the Sun, activated its instruments at a distance of 62.5 million miles from the Sun’s surface, some 39 million miles farther from the Sun than a typical solar encounter. The four instrument suites will continue to collect data through June 28, markedly longer than the mission’s standard 11-day encounters.

The nearly two-month campaign is spurred by Parker Solar Probe’s earlier observations, which revealed significant rotation of the solar wind and solar wind phenomena occurring much farther from the Sun than previously thought. The earlier activation of the science instruments allows the team to cover a larger range in order to trace the evolution of the solar wind as it moves away from the Sun.

Perihelion will occur on June 7 at a distance of 11.6 million miles from the Sun. That will match the previous record set during Parker’s previous orbit for the closest solar fly-by ever. They will then follow this with another fly-by of Venus, which will tighten the orbit even more.

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Sunspot update: The deep minimum continues

Last week NOAA updated its graph for tracking the monthly activity of sunspots on the Sun’s visible hemisphere. Below is that updated graph, annotated by me to show the past and new solar cycle predictions.

April 2020 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for both the previous and upcoming solar maximums. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007 for the previous maximum, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The blue curve is their revised May 2009 prediction. The red curve is the new prediction, first posted by NOAA in April 2020.

Because of the design of this graph, revamped by NOAA in April, it is difficult at this scale — which for context shows both the past cycle and the predicted future cycle — to see the addition of the April sunspot total, when compared to last month’s graph. Trust me, it is there. In April sunspot activity went up, but trivially so, with only four sunspots during the month, three of which had a magnetic polarity assigning them to the next solar maximum.

The solar minimum remains very deep, deeper than the very deep previous minimum, and possibly the least active in two hundred years. The presence however of more sunspots for the new cycle strengthens the expectation that we will not be entering a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades. It just appears that, as predicted, the next solar maximum will be a very weak one.

How this weak activity will effect the climate remains an unknown. In the past, such as the weak maximum that just ended as well as during past weak maximums at the beginning of the 1800s and the 1900s, the Earth’s climate cooled. It also cooled during the Little Ice Age in the 1600s, during the last grand minimum.

Whether the same will happen in the next decade remains unknown. Global warming activists will claim impossible, we are all going to die from overheating. The data for the past decade proves them wrong, though in the coming years they might be vindicated.

All we can do is wait, pay attention to the data, and make our conclusions from that.

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The Sun fluctuates far less than other similar stars

A new survey of 369 sun-like stars has confirmed what earlier studies have shown, that the Sun is remarkable inactive compared with similar stars.

A comprehensive catalogue containing the rotation periods of thousands of stars has been available only for the last few years. It is based on measurement data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which recorded the brightness fluctuations of approximately 150000 main sequence stars (i.e. those that are in the middle of their lifetimes) from 2009 to 2013. The researchers scoured this huge sample and selected those stars that rotate once around their own axis within 20 to 30 days. The Sun needs about 24.5 days for this. The researchers were able to further narrow down this sample by using data from the European Gaia Space Telescope. In the end, 369 stars remained, which also resemble the Sun in other fundamental properties.

The exact analysis of the brightness variations of these stars from 2009 to 2013 reveals a clear picture. While between active and inactive phases solar irradiance fluctuated on average by just 0.07 percent, the other stars showed much larger variation. Their fluctuations were typically about five times as strong. “We were very surprised that most of the Sun-like stars are so much more active than the Sun,” says Dr. Alexander Shapiro of MPS.

It is possible that this inactivity might be because the Sun just happens to be going through a quiet phase, but that is becoming increasingly less likely as the surveys find more and more sun-like stars, and none as inactive as the Sun.

If the Sun is this unusual, we must ask if this inactivity is a fundamental requirement for life to form. Active stars provide a more inhospitable environment. If inactive stars like the Sun are very rare, however, that suggests that life itself in the universe could be very rare as well.

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NOAA’s prediction for the next solar maximum

Last week NOAA introduced a newly revamped graph for tracking the monthly activity of sunspots on the Sun’s visible hemisphere. (You can see an example of the old graph, used by them for more than fifteen years, here.)

In order to properly understand the context of future sunspot activity, it is important to understand how the new graph aligns with the old. My first attempt to do so in my April 3, 2020 sunspot update, unfortunately was a failure. While most of my conclusions in that update remain correct, my attempt to place NOAA’s prediction for the next solar cycle on my graph was in error.

I had not realized that NOAA had changed its sunspot number scale on the graph’s vertical axis. In their old graph they had used the monthly sunspot number count from the Royal Observatory of Belgium. The new graph instead used the sunspot number from NOAA’s own Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). Both numbers are creditable, but the solar scientist community has switched entirely to the latter in the past few years because they consider its criteria for determining the count across all past cycles to be more accurate.

The Belgium numbers have traditionally been about one third lower than SWPC’s. Not realizing that NOAA’s new prediction was based on the SWPC numbers, I therefore placed it on the graph using the Belgium numbers and thus made the peak of the solar maximum 33% too high.

Below is NOAA’s new graph, annotated properly with both the past and new solar cycle predictions added now correctly.
» Read more

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Sunspot update: The flatline resumes

NOAA this week released its February update of its monthly graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. Below is my monthly version, annotated as I have done every month since 2011.

After a tiny uptick in sunspot activity in January, the Sun resumed the unprecedented flatlining of sunspot activity that began last June. Since then, the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, a drought that as far as I can tell has never happened since the 11-year sunspot cycle resumed in the 1700s (after the grand minimum in the 1600s) and astronomers began counting sunspots.

February 2020 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

February saw only one sunspot, and it belonged to the old solar cycle. It also occurred at the beginning of the month, and was followed by 33-day streak of blankness, into the middle of March, when a sunspot from the new cycle appeared and quickly faded.

The continuing overall lack of sunspots, from either the old or new cycle, does not mean that we are entering a new grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades (though some scientists believe we are). It does suggest however that the next solar maximum will be weak, and very likely weaker than the very weak maximum that just ended.

Why the Sun does this remains a mystery. Scientists really have no fundamental understanding of the magnetic processes that produce the Sun’s sunspot cycles. And since that cycle appears to have some effect on the Earth’s climate, it also means scientists do not yet have a fundamental understanding of the climate either.

Not that this lack of knowledge matters anymore. We are in an age of panic and certainty, based on emotion and feelings. All that matters is that many people feel they understand the climate and how the Sun works, just as everyone is sure that COVID-19 will destroy the world if we don’t shut down all human activity.

They are certain, and any additional data that illustrates that certainty is unwarranted is irrelevant and must be ignored.

Certainty however is a very dangerous thing. The universe is always more complicated than we know, and to assume we now understand all without doubt leaves us very vulnerable to some bad surprises, as well as the chance we will take actions that are foolish, inappropriate, and even downright evil.

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NOAA’s aging fleet of sun-observation satellites

In testimony during a Senate hearing on February 12, the head of NOAA’s space weather division admitted that the agency’s ability to monitor the Sun is threatened by its aging fleet of solar satellites, combined with the agency’s slow progress on a large single replacement satellite, presently scheduled for launch in 2024.

NOAA currently uses the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft to collect solar wind data, and uses the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft to observe the solar corona, using those data to forecast solar storms that can affect satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as power grids.

However, SOHO, launched in December 1995, is well past its design life. In addition, DSCOVR has been offline since June 2019 because of technical problems, forcing NOAA to depend solely on ACE, which launched in 1997. [emphasis mine]

NOAA has been trying, and failing, to build a replacement for ACE for more than a decade. Worse, the agency’s inability to deal with these issues was further revealed by this quote:

Congress has pushed to speed up work on that [replacement] mission, despite NOAA’s assurances about the availability of data from other spacecraft. NOAA sought about $25 million for the mission in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, but Congress appropriated $64 million. NOAA has yet to release its fiscal year 2021 budget request, more than a week after the White House published the overall federal government budget proposal.

Something has been wrong in the management at NOAA now for at least a decade. They can’t seem to get new satellites built, and when they try they can’t seem to do it on schedule and for a reasonable cost. Their weather satellite program has been rife with problems, including cost overruns, schedule delays, and failing satellites.

But why should we be surprised? This kind of mismanagement at the federal government has been par for the course for the past half century.

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Sunspot update: A tiny burst of activity that might mean something

On February 3, 2020, NOAA posted its January of its monthly graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. As I have done now every month since this webpage began in 2011, it is posted below, with annotations:

After seven months of practically no sunspot activity, the longest such stretch in probably a century, January had a tiny burst of activity, breaking that string. Of the month’s four sunspots, two had a polarity from the old solar cycle, two from the new.

January 2020 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

Despite their low number and general weakness, the continuing appearance of sunspots with polarities aligned with the new cycle strongly indicates that we will have a solar maximum in the next five years, not a grand minimum lasting decades that some scientists are predicting. While the year is young and it is certainly too soon to trust any trends, the fact that January saw an increase in activity over the past seven months suggests that we might have passed the low point of the minimum. We shall find out this year.

It must be remembered that the uncertainties in this field of science remain gigantic. No one really understands why the Sun’s magnetic dynamo goes through these cycles and flips in polarity. No one really understands why it produces sunspots as it does. And no one for sure yet knows exactly how the Sun’s cyclical behavior directly effects the climate. We only have circumstantial evidence, some of which can be legitimately questioned.

What is certain is that we don’t know very much, and are always in error when we forget this fact. Remember this always when some politician or scientist claims the science is settled or certain, and they know without doubt what is going to happen. They are either lying, fooling themselves, or are simply fools. In any case, such certainty in science should never be trusted.

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New solar results from Parker

Scientists have released a new set of science results from the Parker Solar Probe, all part of a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

From the introduction to the journal issue:

Over the past year and a half, PSP returned an enormous amount of science data that drew a new picture of the source region of the solar wind. The first discoveries of the mission were reported in the Nature magazine on 2019 December 4. This special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement series consists of over 50 science papers that provide more detailed analyses of the data from the first two orbits.

Most of the results are very technical, relating to detailed phenomenon of the near solar environment, and are in a sense very preliminary. They are essentially still gathering data. It appears too soon for them to come to any solid conclusions yet.

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Parker completes fourth solar flyby; sets new record

The Parker Solar Probe yesterday completed its fourth orbital close fly-by of the Sun, setting a new speed record.

The spacecraft traveled 11.6 million miles from the Sun’s surface at perihelion, reaching a speed of 244,225 miles per hour. These achievements topple Parker Solar Probe’s own previous records for closest spacecraft to the Sun — previously about 15 million miles from the Sun’s surface — and fastest human-made object, before roughly 213,200 miles per hour.

Parker will continue to break these records with each orbit.

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First images from Inouye Solar Telescope

Close-up of the Sun by Inouye Telescope

Scientists have released the first images of the Sun taken by the new Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, is today’s released image, a close-up of the Sun’s surface granular structure, with each cell about the size of Texas.

Right now most of the telescope’s instruments are not yet on line. It is expected the telescope will become fully operational in July.

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A minor eruption on the Sun

How about another cool image, this time a movie taken by Solar Dynamics Orbiter (SDO) back in August 13, 2018 of what they call a minor eruption on the surface of the Sun.

Because the movie is a somewhat large file, I have embedded it below the fold. Or you could go here to see a higher resolution version. This is the description by the SDO science team:

This close-up of the Sun from a two-hour period on Aug 13, 2018 shows a minor eruption of charged particles rising up and twisting about before falling back into the Sun. Imaged in extreme ultraviolet light, these kinds of events are difficult to see except when they occur along the sun’s edge, also known as the limb. At its peak the plasma rises several times the diameter of Earth. [emphasis mine]

» Read more

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Sunspot update Nov 2019: The longest flatline in centuries

The Sun is now in what appears to be the longest stretch ever recorded, since the 11-year solar sunspot cycle reactivated in the 1700s after the last grand minimum, of sunspot inactivity. This record-setting dearth of practically no sunspots has now stretched to six months in a row.

On December 8 NOAA released its November update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. As I have done now every month since this webpage began in 2011, I have posted it below, with annotations:

November 2019 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

In November the Sun saw two official sunspots (here and here) and one active area that never received an official sunspot number, with two of these three weak events having a polarity linking them to the next solar maximum.
» Read more

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First results from Parker released

Scientists today published four papers outlining the first scientific results obtained during the first two close fly-bys of the Sun by the Parker Solar Probe.

The four papers, now available online from the journal Nature, describe Parker’s unprecedented near-Sun observations through two record-breaking close flybys. They reveal new insights into the processes that drive the solar wind – the constant outflow of hot, ionized gas that streams outward from the Sun and fills up the solar system – and how the solar wind couples with solar rotation. Through these flybys, the mission also has examined the dust of the coronal environment, and spotted particle acceleration events so small that they are undetectable from Earth, which is nearly 93 million miles from the Sun.

During its initial flybys, Parker studied the Sun from a distance of about 15 million miles. That is already closer to the Sun than Mercury, but the spacecraft will get even closer in the future, as it travels at more than 213,000 mph, faster than any previous spacecraft.

Details about the four main takeaways are described at the link. None of the discoveries is earth-shaking but all help scientists better understand the Sun’s inner atmosphere.

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Parker releases first data to public

The solar wind as seen from Parker
Click for full image.

Having completed its first three orbits of the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe science team today made all the data obtained available to the public.

The image to the right was taken during the first close solar flyby in November 2018. It shows solar wind particles streaming past the spacecraft.

Do not expect many spectacular images from Parker. It has a camera, but the mission’s focus is the study of the Sun’s atmosphere and solar wind, neither of which are likely to be very photogenic.

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Watch the Mercury transit of the Sun from home!

The November 11 transit of Mercury across the face the Sun will be live streamed by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

It appears that in Los Angeles the transit will have already started at sunrise, with Mercury at that point about a third of its way across the Sun’s face. Regardless, from about 7 am to 10 am (Pacific) the observatory will provide a view.

UPDATE: Images from an event in New Zealand will upload real time telescope images of the transit here.

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How to safely watch the November 11 solar transit of Mercury

Link here. The last transit of the Sun by Mercury was in 2016, and the next won’t be until 2032.

The site emphasizes the most important fact: Do not watch this without the proper eye protection! If you fail to heed this warning you will likely go blind, for the rest of your life. However, if you follow the instructions and obtain the proper filters, you can watch most safely.

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Sunspot update October 2019: Sunspot activity continues to flatline

For the fifth month in a row the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, possibly the longest such stretch since astronomers began recording the sunspot cycle in the 1700s.

This flatlining is very obvious in NOAA’s October update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, released yesterday, and posted below, with annotations:

October 2019 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

SILSO October graph

As it has done in previous four months, in October the Sun produced practically no sunspots. The graph on the right, produced by Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations (SILSO), shows only one weak sunspot at the beginning of October.

Even though the previous 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded, the lack of sunspots in the past five months has significantly beaten it for inactivity, as shown on the first graph above. That previous minimum never had a period of even two months with so few sunspots. Furthermore, the Sun has now been blank 74% of the time in 2019, a record of blankness that beats the yearly record of either 2008 or 2009. If the Sun continues to be as blank as it has been for the next two months, 2019 will easily set the record for the year with the fewest sunspots ever recorded.

The big question remains: Are we heading for a grand minimum with no sunspots for decades? We still do not know. Even these unprecedented trends prove nothing, as we really do not yet have a clear understanding of why the Sun undergoes these various cycles of sunspot activity/inactivity. The Sun could still come back to life in the coming years. We can only wait and see. As I noted however in last month’s sunspot update, the arrival of a new grand minumum, the first since the 1600s, could have important consequences:

During past grand minimums there is evidence that the Earth also cooled, though the link between the two phenomenon remains circumstantial and unproven. If we see another grand minimum, and the Earth once again cools, then we might be able to finally tie these two phenomenon together.

It is essential that climate scientists pursue this question. Answering it might very well defuse the fears presently expressed by leftist politicians and the leftist press of an oncoming period of global warming.

At the same time, it might also present us with the possibility of an oncoming period of significant global cooling, during which it will be so cold that we might face crop failures (as happened in the previous grand minimum in the 1600s).

We need to know what is going on with the Sun, and its consequences for Earth, as soon as possible. Whether we can find out this solar cycle is unlikely, but a cold hard look at the data would do much to answer the question.

I wonder however if there any climate scientists around willing to do so. Questioning human-caused global warming carries great career risks. In fact, taking any position counter to the prevailing wisdom on any scientific issue appears to carry risks, as demonstrated by the experience recently when a journal decided to publish a paper that questioned modern gender politics:
» Read more

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Sunspot update Sept 2019:
The blankest Sun in decades

With the release yesterday by NOAA of its September update of its graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun, we find ourselves in what might be the longest stretch of sunspot inactivity in decades, part of what might become the most inactive solar minimum in centuries.

In the last four months the Sun has produced practically no sunspots. There were two in June, two in July, and one in August. The September graph, posted below with additional annotations by me to give it context, shows that the past month was as weak as August, with only one sunspot again.

September 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

The 2008-2009 solar minimum was one of the deepest and longest ever recorded. Yet, it never produced a stretch of four months with so few sunspots, as shown in the graph above. Moreover, during that minimum the Sun was blank 71% of the time in 2008 and 73% of the time in 2009 (a record). Right now, with almost three months to go in 2019, the Sun has already been blank 73% of time, with every indication that it will top that number before the year is out.

Furthermore, the trend continues to suggest we are heading for a period of very few sunspots. Though one of the six sunspots seen since June 1 had a polarity that belonged to the next solar cycle, we have seen no further such next-cycle sunspots since July. There was one active region on October 6 with a next solar cycle polarity, but it was never able to gather enough magnetic energy to mature into a sunspot.

As I noted in my July 8 sunspot update,
» Read more

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Sunspot update August 2019: Even fewer sunspots

Silso graph for August 2019

Last month I titled my sunspot update “Almost no sunspots,” as there were only two sunspots for the entire month of July, with one having the polarity for the next solar maximum.

August however beat July, with only one sunspot for the month, and none linked to the next maximum. To the right is the Silso graph of sunspot activity for August, showing just one sunspot for the month, on only one day, August 13.

Below is NOAA’s August graph of the overall sunspot cycle since 2009, released by NOAA today and annotated to give it some context.
» Read more

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Parker completes third fly-by of Sun

The Parker Solar Probe has completed its third close fly-by of the Sun.

At just before 1:50 p.m. EDT on Sept. 1, 2019, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completed its third close approach of the Sun, called perihelion. At the time of perihelion, the spacecraft was about 15 million miles from the Sun’s surface, traveling at more than 213,200 miles per hour.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, received a green “A” beacon from the spacecraft soon after perihelion, meaning all systems were performing as designed and that the spacecraft was in good health.

As they had the science instruments turned on sooner during this close approach, and will let them operate longer afterward, they will get more data then on the previous two close approaches.

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Parker to extend instrument operations in future solar fly-bys

The engineering and science team for the Parker Solar Probe have decided they can turn on its science instruments for a longer period during future solar fly-bys, and have now done so for its upcoming third approach.

Parker Solar Probe turned on its four instrument suites on Aug. 16, 2019 — earlier than during its previous two solar encounters, extending the observation period from 11 days to about 35 days.

During the spacecraft’s first two solar encounters, the science instruments were turned on when Parker was about 0.25 AU from the Sun and powered off again at the same distance on the outbound side of the orbit. (One AU, or astronomical unit, is about 93 million miles, the average distance between the Sun and Earth.) For this third solar encounter, the mission team turned on the instruments when the spacecraft was around 0.45 AU from the Sun on the inbound side of its orbit and will turn them off when the spacecraft is about 0.5 AU from the Sun on the outbound side.

This decision will allow them to get more data about the solar wind from farther from the Sun.

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Sunspot update July 2019: Almost no sunspots

Time for my monthly sunspot update. Below is the July graph of sunspot activity released by NOAA yesterday, annotated to give it some context.

July was about as inactive as June, with only two sunspots appearing during the entire month. As with June, one of those sunspots had the polarity for the next solar maximum, signaling once again the beginning of the next cycle.

July 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

We have now seen sunspots with a polarity matching the next solar cycle for two months in a row. In every case those sunspots were weak, lasting only a day or so, but they were visible and trackable, more evidence that we will not see a grand minimum in the coming decade. Whether the next cycle will be weak or not remains unknown, though the data suggests it will be weak.

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Parker data downloaded from first two orbits

The science team for the Parker Solar Probe has completed the download of all data gathered during the spacecraft’s first two solar orbits.

On May 6, 2019, just over a month after Parker Solar Probe completed its second solar encounter, the final transmission of 22 gigabytes of planned science data — collected during the first two encounters — was downlinked by the mission team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, or APL, in Laurel, Maryland.

This 22 GB is 50% more data than the team had estimated would be downlinked by this point in the mission — all because the spacecraft’s telecommunications system is performing better than pre-launch estimates. After characterizing the spacecraft’s operations during the commissioning phase, which began soon after launch, the Parker mission team determined that the telecom system could effectively deliver more downlink opportunities, helping the team maximize the download of science data.

The team has capitalized on the higher downlink rate, instructing Parker Solar Probe to record and send back extra science data gathered during its second solar encounter. This additional 25 GB of science data will be downlinked to Earth between July 24 and Aug. 15.

Don’t expect any immediate press conferences announcing results. It will take them time to analyze this batch, and they will probably want to do a few more orbits before coming to any conclusions.

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Sunspot update June 2019: Down to zero again, with next cycle making an appearance

Below is the June graph of sunspot activity released by NOAA yesterday. As I do every month, I am posting it here, annotated to give it some context.

After three months of slightly increased sunspot activity, the Sun in June was essentially blank, with sunspots visible on its facing hemisphere on only five days. In addition, the 36 day stretch of spotless days that began in May and stretched through most of June was the longest such stretch since the last minimum in 2009.
June 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

Even while the solar minimum continues and heads for its low point, the first indications of the next solar solar cycle have appeared:
» Read more

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DSCOVR in safe mode

The solar wind monitoring satellite DSCOVR has gone into safe mode.

It is at present unclear what the problem is, or whether they can recover the spacecraft.

DSCOVR’s history is packed with political shenanigans. It was first proposed by Gore as Triana, with its only purpose to take global pictures of the Earth so Gore and the left could use these images for environmental propaganda. Bush canceled it, partly because it really had no legitimate scientific purpose and partly to prevent the left this propaganda tool. It was resurrected during the Obama administration but with a more useful purpose, providing early solar wind data so that Earth-based power grids could get prepared should a major solar storm be incoming. NASA’s other solar wind monitors ACE and SOHO, were already decades beyond their planned lifespan, and the space agency, the solar weather community, and especially the world’s electrical power industry, was desperate to get a new satellite in space.

Ironically, with DSCOVR’s shutdown we are still dependent on ACE and SOHO. Nor is there any replacement satellite anywhere close to launch.

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New prediction for upcoming solar cycle

The uncertainty of science: A new prediction for the upcoming solar cycle, announced today, calls for a much weaker cycle then the general consensus of the solar science community.

The new prediction:

The forecast for the next solar cycle says it will be the weakest of the last 200 years. The maximum of this next cycle – measured in terms of sunspot number, a standard measure of solar activity level – could be 30 to 50% lower than the most recent one. The results show that the next cycle will start in 2020 and reach its maximum in 2025.

The consensus prediction:

[They] dutifully tabulate the estimates, and come up with a peak sunspot range: 95 to 130. This spells a weak cycle, but not notably so, and it’s marginally stronger than the past cycle. [They do] the same with the votes for the timing of minimum. The consensus is that it will come sometime between July 2019 and September 2020. Maximum will follow sometime between 2023 and 2026.

The main difference is that the consensus expects the next maximum to be weak but stronger than the maximum that just ended, while the new prediction says the next maximum will be the weakest in 200 years.

It has been my impression that there is unhappiness in the solar science community over the consensus prediction. I suspect today’s independent prediction is an indication of that unhappiness. The scientists involved in this research wanted to go on record that they disagree with the consensus.

I expect that NOAA will eventually put the consensus prediction on their monthly sunspot graph that I post here each month. If they do, I might also add this independent prediction so that we can compare the accuracy of the two as the next cycle unfolds.

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Sunspot update May 2019: The long ramp down

NOAA yesterday released its May update for the Sun’s sunspot cycle. The graph is posted below, annotated by me to give it some context.

The Sun in May continued to show the exact same amount of activity as it had shown for March and April. This steady uptick in sunspot activity once again shows that the ramp down to full solar minimum will be long and extended.

May 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

That we are definitely ramping downward to minimum, even with the slight increase in the past three months, is shown by the fact that the Sun has shown no sunspots for the past fifteen days. In fact, all the activity shown in May comes from the first half of the month. This pattern is actually a reflection of the Sun’s 27-day rotation period. As I noted in my February 2017 update,

January’s activity however illustrated a statistical phenomenon that is typical of the sunspot count. That count is determined not by the numbers of sunspots on the entire surface of the Sun, but on the sunspots visible on the side of the Sun facing the Earth. Since it is not unusual for one face to be more active than the other, as we transition from maximum to minimum the sunspot counts will often show a more pronounced up-and-down curve reflecting this fact. Since the Sun’s day equals about 27 Earth days, this means that about every two weeks the active side will dominate our view until it rotates away and the inactive side reveals itself for two weeks.

In 2017 the number of spots were greater, so the period of inactivity was generally less. Now, it is not unusual for the Sun to be blank for weeks at a time. When it does become active, it is also not unusual for that activity to be confined to one hemisphere, so we get two weeks or less of activity, followed by two weeks or more of blankness.

So far there have been no sunspots in June. Expect that to continue for at least another week, when the more active hemisphere of the Sun returns to face us. I would not be surprise however if that other hemisphere arrives with its sunspots gone, so that the present streak of blankness continues unabated.

Meanwhile, solar scientists struggle to figure out what is going to happen next. Unlike climate scientists, who know as little about the climate, the solar science community admits to its ignorance about the Sun, and the uncertainty of its solar models.

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Solar scientists struggle to predict the next sunspot cycle

Link here. This is a detailed article describing the meeting in March where the solar science community gathered to formulate its prediction for the next solar cycle.

What stands out about the meeting is the outright uncertainty the scientists have about any prediction they might make. It is very clear that they recognize that all their predictions, both in the past and now, are not based on any actual understanding the Sun’s magnetic processes that form sunspots and cause its activity cycles, but on superficial statistics and using the past visual behavior of the Sun to predict its future behavior.

“There’s not very much physics involved,” concedes panelist Rachel Howe of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who has been tasked with reviewing the mishmash of statistical models. “There’s not very much statistical sophistication either.”

Panelist Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder agrees with Howe. “There is no connection whatsoever to solar physics,” he says in frustration. McIntosh, who by now has walked downstairs from his office and appears in the doorway, is blunter. “You’re trying to get rid of numerology?” he says, smirking.

The result, as I repeatedly note in my monthly sunspot updates, is that the last prediction failed, and that there is now great disagreement among these scientists about what will happen in the upcoming cycle.

[They] dutifully tabulate the estimates, and come up with a peak sunspot range: 95 to 130. This spells a weak cycle, but not notably so, and it’s marginally stronger than the past cycle. [They do] the same with the votes for the timing of minimum. The consensus is that it will come sometime between July 2019 and September 2020. Maximum will follow sometime between 2023 and 2026.

The range of predictions here is so great that essentially it shows that there really is no consensus on what will happen, which also explains why the prediction has still not been added to NOAA’s monthly sunspot graph. For past cycles the Sun’s behavior was relatively consistent and reliable, making such statistical and superficial predictions reasonably successful.

The situation now is more elusive. For the past dozen or so years the Sun has not been behaving in a consistent or reliable manner. Thus, the next cycle might be stronger, it could be weak, or we might be heading into a grand minimum, with no sunspots for many decades. These scientists simply do not know, and without a proper understanding of the Sun’s dynamo and magnetic field, they cannot make a sunspot prediction that anyone can trust.

And so they wait and watch, as we all. The Sun will do what the Sun wants to do, and only from this we will maybe be able to finally begin to glean an understanding of why.

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Sunspot update March 2019: An upcoming Grand Minimum?

Even though we are now deep into the beginning of what might become the first grand minimum in sunspot activity since the invention of the telescope, that does not mean the Sun has as yet stopped producing sunspots. Yesterday NOAA released its the monthly update of its tracking of the solar cycle, adding sunspot activity for March 2019 to its graph. Below is that graph, annotated by me to give it some context.

It shows the Sun with a slight burst in activity in March, suggesting that though we are now in the solar minimum that minimum still has the ability to produce sunspots.

At the same time, for me to say that we might be heading to a grand minimum, a time period lasting many decades where no sunspots are visible and the sunspot cycle essentially ceases, is not click bait or hyperbole. It is instead based on what I now think the solar science community is thinking, based on this very graph.

March 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

For past half dozen or so cycles the solar science community had issued its prediction for the upcoming solar maximum at about this stage in the overall cycle, during the final ramp down to minimum when it was clear that the Sun had entered that minimum.

This cycle’s prediction however has not yet happened, and in fact appears to be late. In fact, the extension of the May 2009 red curve that was made in November 2018 might very well be the only prediction we see. That extension is shown by the differences between the green 2007 prediction and the red 2009 prediction in the graph. Before November 2018 both curves ended at the same place, the end of 2018.

The extension of that red curve is important. As I noted in my December 2018 sunspot update,
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Parker survives its second close Sun flyby

The Parker Solar probe has survived its second solar flyby, passing within fifteen million miles of the Sun on April 4.

It was moving at 213,000 miles per hour at that moment, which is probably a speed record for any human vehicle. That however is a record Parker will likely break on future fly-bys.

The entire close encounter runs from March 30 to April 10, during which the spacecraft gathers data about the Sun’s inner corona (the sun’s atmosphere).

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