Parker completes record-setting sixth Sun fly-by

The Parker Solar Probe has successfully completed its sixth close fly-by of the Sun, flying as close as 8.4 million miles, the closest any spacecraft has ever gotten to the Sun, while also moving at a record speed of 289,927 miles per hour.

Flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, received a “Status A” signal from the spacecraft through NASA’s Deep Space Network at 4:45 a.m. EDT; Status A is the best of four possible status signals, and indicates that the spacecraft is operating nominally.

The beacon comes after a six-day stretch when communications with the spacecraft were not possible as it wheeled around the Sun. This is the first sign of a successful solar encounter; this sixth solar encounter began Sept. 21 and continues through Oct. 2.

Future fly-bys will likely break this record as well.

Scientists declare solar minimum over, with next sunspot maximum coming

Scientists from the government agencies of NOAA and NASA today announced that the solar minimum of the past sunspot cycle occurred in December 2019, and that the ramp up to the next solar maximum has begun, which they predict will be as active as the last weak maximum.

The announcement and prediction was put forth by “the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, an international group of experts co-sponsored by NASA and NOAA.” While this group is made up of legitimate scientists studying the Sun, its press releases tend to be lobbying efforts for government programs, which nicely describes today’s release as well. The release not only touts the importance of their work, it links this work to the Trump administration’s Artemis program to get back to the Moon.

Note also that this announcement only makes official what has been obvious for months, as I have noted in my monthly sunspot updates. See for example this quote from my September 7th update:

What is clear is that the activity does herald the next maximum. As in the past few months, the sunspots in August all had polarities that assigned them to the new maximum. While it is not impossible for there to be a handful of sunspots in the next few months that belong to the last maximum, it now appears that the last cycle is pretty much over. We are entering the ramp up to the next maximum, presently predicted by a portion of the solar science community aligned with NOAA to be a weak one.

The only change is that it appears they are upping their prediction for the next maximum slightly. Before the prediction panel had said that the next maximum would be weaker than the past maximum. Now they it appears they are saying it will be the same.

Sunspot update: More evidence of an upcoming maximum

NOAA last week updated its monthly graph for tracking the Sun’s monthly sunspot activity. As I have done now for every month since 2011, I am posting that graph elow with additional annotations by me to show the past and new solar cycle predictions.

August 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 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.

August continued the trends seen in the past two months whereby sunspot activity actually exceeded the prediction for this particular month.

Does this mean the prediction of a weak maximum in 2025 will be wrong? Hardly. Sunspot activity in any given month can easily be above or below the prediction, as is obvious if you compare the fluctuations of the last maximum with the prediction. We will not really know if these higher numbers the past few months mean anything until a lot more time has passed, with the gathering of a lot more data.

What is clear is that the activity does herald the next maximum. As in the past few months, the sunspots in August all had polarities that assigned them to the new maximum. While it is not impossible for there to be a handful of sunspots in the next few months that belong to the last maximum, it now appears that the last cycle is pretty much over. We are entering the ramp up to the next maximum, presently predicted by a portion of the solar science community aligned with NOAA to be a weak one.

Above all, the real scientific mystery remains: Scientists do not really yet understand the causes and processes that produce this sunspot cycle. They know without question that it is caused by cycles in the Sun’s magnetic dynamo, but their understanding of the details behind this process remain quite unknown.

Furthermore, the Sun’s importance to the climate on Earth is unquestioned. What we still do not know is its precise influence on long term climate changes. There is circumstantial evidence that it causes cooling and warming of the climate on scales of decades and centuries, but this remains unconfirmed. Once again, our understanding of the details behind the changes in the climate remain quite unknown.

And as always, the devil is in the details.

Newly upgraded solar telescope sees first light

Early image from upgraded solar telescope.

Astronomers have finished a major instrument upgrade of the GREGOR solar telescope in the Canary Islands, making it possible for them to observe features on the Sun’s surface as small as thirty miles in diameter.

The image to the right is an example of the telescope’s new capability, showing the Sun’s granular surface features. From the introduction of the paper describing the upgrade:

GREGOR is Europe’s largest solar telescope. … Its 1.5 m diameter with an optical footprint of 1.44 m allows us to resolve structures on the Sun as small as 50 km at 400 nm.

…A past drawback of GREGOR was that its image quality did not reach the theoretical limit, partly because a risk was taken with untested technologies, such as silicon carbide mirrors, which could not be polished well enough, and partly because of design problems. These difficulties have recently been solved by replacing all silicon carbide mirrors with mirrors made of Zerodur, which can be polished to the required quality, and by redesigning the AO relay optics. GREGOR now operates at its diffraction limit. [emphasis mine]

In other words, the initial mirrors did not work as promised, requiring them to replace them to get the telescope to function as initially designed. By the image above, it looks like their upgrade has worked admirably.

Sunspot update: Hints of the next maximum

It’s time for another monthly sunspot update! NOAA yesterday updated its monthly graph for tracking the Sun’s monthly sunspot activity, and as I do every month, I am posting it below with additional anotations by me to show the past and new solar cycle predictions.

July 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.

July continued the trend from June, with a slight uptick in activity. The SILSO graph below for July illustrates this.
» Read more

New model predicting solar flares is 56% accurate

The uncertainty of science: Using observations from the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), solar scientists have developed a new model for predicting the biggest solar flares, and have found it to able to predict a big flare about 56% of the time.

Kusano and his team looked at the seven active regions from the last solar cycle that produced the strongest flares on the Earth-facing side of the Sun (they also focused on flares from part of the Sun that is closest to Earth, where magnetic field observations are best). SDO’s observations of the active regions helped them locate the right magnetic boundaries, and calculate instabilities in the hot spots. In the end, their model predicted seven out of nine total flares, with three false positives. The two that the model didn’t account for, Kusano explained, were exceptions to the rest: Unlike the others, the active region they exploded from were much larger, and didn’t produce a coronal mass ejection along with the flare. [emphasis mine]

What they did was apply their model to active regions on the Sun during the last solar maximum to see if it would accurately predict the events we know did happen. The model predicted that big flares would spout from ten of twelve active regions on the Sun during the last solar cycle. In reality, only seven of those twelve active regions produced flares.

The press release minimizes the three false positives, making believe they don’t count in the total. That’s hogwash. The model got it wrong, and so these false positives must be counted just like the two false negatives.

A prediction rate of 56% is barely above random, so this model needs a lot of work. Nonetheless, it is a major step forward, because it is not based on simple statistics — counting the number of big sunspots and the number of big flares and then calculating the percentage that flare — which is how most solar science models are structured, and thus are really meaningless. Instead, this model is based an actual analysis of the behavior of the Sun’s magnetic field in big active regions when solar flares erupt. They are trying to pinpoint the precise conditions that cause the big flares, and appear to be narrowing the conditions successfully.

Solar Orbiter’s first images, the closest ever of Sun

Campfires on Sun
Click for full image.

The Solar Orbiter science team today released the first images taken during the spacecraft’s first close fly-by of the Sun.

The image to the right, reduced to post here, highlights what they are touting as their first discovery, what they have dubbed “campfires” on the solar surface, small flares previously not known to exist.

The campfires shown in the first image set were captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) from Solar Orbiter’s first perihelion, the point in its elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. At that time, the spacecraft was only 77 million km away from the Sun, about half the distance between Earth and the star. “The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller,” says David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), Principal Investigator of the EUI instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona. “The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”

The scientists do not know yet whether the campfires are just tiny versions of big flares, or whether they are driven by different mechanisms. There are, however, already theories that these miniature flares could be contributing to one of the most mysterious phenomena on the Sun, the coronal heating.

Much more to come in future orbits, as the spacecraft works its way even closer to the Sun.

Solar Orbiter operational, first images to be released

Engineers have now confirmed that Solar Orbiter, having completed its first close fly-by of the Sun, is working perfectly and is producing images and data better than expected.

They will release to the public the first images on July 16.

“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” says Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA. “We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before. The 10 instruments on board Solar Orbiter work beautifully, and together provide a holistic view of the Sun and the solar wind. This makes us confident that Solar Orbiter will help us answer profound open questions about the Sun.”

No other images of the Sun have been taken from such a close distance. During its first perihelion, the point in the spacecraft’s elliptical orbit closest to the Sun, Solar Orbiter got as close as 77 million kilometres from the star’s surface, about half the distance between the Sun and Earth. The spacecraft will eventually make much closer approaches to the Sun. The spacecraft is now in its cruise phase, gradually adjusting its orbit around the Sun. Once in its science phase, which will commence in late 2021, the spacecraft will get as close as 42 million kilometres from the Sun’s surface, closer than the planet Mercury. The spacecraft’s operators will gradually tilt Solar Orbiter’s orbit to enable the probe to get the first proper view of the Sun’s poles.

A previous spacecraft, Ulysses, flew over the Sun’s poles, but it did it from far away, and was designed not to take images but to study the Sun’s solar wind. Solar Orbiter is getting in close.

Sunspot update: More evidence of an upcoming weak maximum

On July 4th NOAA updated its monthly graph 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.

June 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.

June saw an uptick of activity since my last update, though that activity remains quite low. We saw two sunspots during the month, both with polarities that link them to the next maximum and thus providing evidence that we will have a maximum in about five or six years. The first of those sunspots was also one of the strongest new cycle sunspots yet seen, and lasted for almost two weeks before it rotated off the visible face of the sun.

The ratio of next cycle sunspots vs sunspots from the past maximum has also been shifting. More and more, the new sunspots belong to the next cycle and less to the last. The ramp up to the next maximum is definitely beginning, though to call it a “ramp up” at this point is a big exaggeration. Sunspot activity remains low, though the last few months have seen some activity, unlike the seven months of nothing seen during the second half of last year.

The upcoming prediction for the next maximum calls for it to be very weak. Interestingly, the activity in June surpassed that prediction. This does not mean that the prediction will be wrong, only that June was more active when compared to the smooth prediction curve. As the cycle unfolds the monthly numbers will fluctuate up and down, as they did last cycle. The question will be whether their overall numbers will match closely with the prediction. In the past cycle actual sunspot activity was consistently below all predictions. It is too soon to say how well the new prediction is doing.

NOAA awards contract to private company for solar observatory

Capitalism in space: NOAA today awarded a contract to the private company Xplore to study development of a commercial solar observatory at the Earth-Sun L1 point.

The press release at the link is somewhat vague about the contract. It appears to be a study to see if Xplore’s proposed Xcraft spacecraft can be used as platform for such a solar observatory, not an actual contract to build the observatory.

Regardless, this award is a strong indicator that the Trump administration is applying pressure at NOAA to get it out of the business of building weather satellites and instead be a customer buying such satellites from the private sector. The weather agency has been, like NASA earlier this decade, resistant to this concept, with its bureaucracy wanting to retain control over everything. Maybe the success of SpaceX at NASA is now helping to fuel the change at NOAA.

Let us hope so. NOAA’s present fleet of solar observatories in space is years past their due date, with no sign of a replacement fleet. The agency just can’t seem to get its act together to build these satellites. For example, NOAA has been trying and failing to build a new solar observatory to monitor sunspot activity now for more than a decade.

Maybe, like NASA, giving the job to private enterprise might get things going.

Parker successfully completes fifth solar fly-by

The Parker Solar Probe has signaled scientists that it has successfully completed its fifth solar fly-by without damage.

On June 9, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe signaled the success of its fifth close pass by the Sun, called perihelion, with a radio beacon tone. The spacecraft completed the fifth perihelion of its mission two days prior, flying within 11.6 million miles from the Sun’s surface, reaching a top speed of about 244,225 miles per hour, which matches the spacecraft’s own records for closest human-made object to the Sun and fastest human-made object, set during its fourth orbit on January 29.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, received a “status A” beacon from the spacecraft at 4:40 p.m. EDT. Status A is the best of four possible status signals, and indicates that the spacecraft is operating nominally and the instrument suites are collecting science data. This beacon tone comes after a five-day period where communications with the spacecraft were not possible.

The data from this fly-by will arrive during the summer. Meanwhile, the spacecraft will next do a fly-by of Venus to slow it down further so that it can get even closer to the Sun on its next orbit.

Sunspot update: The deep minimum deepens

NOAA last week did its monthly update of 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.

May 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.

Since last month NOAA has done some further revisions to this graph, and improved it significantly since their first redesign, released in April. You can see the difference just by comparing it to my previous update last month. For scales covering longer periods, they have eliminated the diamonds, making the curve much more readable. They have also increased the size of the graph, which also serves to make it more readable as well. Kudos to the people at NOAA for these changes.

As you can see, sunspot activity in May plunged from the slight uptick in April. This is even more clearly shown by the SILSO graph below.
» Read more

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:
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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,
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