What does the upcoming solar maximum mean for you

What does the upcoming solar maximum mean for you

James Fitts

January 25, 2024
5 minute read

the main points

  • The current solar cycle is expected to reach its peak in 2024.
  • Sunspots are characterized by beams of high magnetic energy, which can be interrupted, leading to solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
  • Solar peak results in powerful aurora that can be seen over vast swaths of Earth – keep an eye on the skies!

Solar flares, like the one that occurred on December 31, 2023, could affect technology and the environment near Earth. This X5.0 flare, seen on the left of the image, was captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image credit: NASA/GFSC/SDO

Much like Earth, our Sun is a dynamic body with a complex — and sometimes violent — climate system. Solar storms release extremely energetic radiation that can impact our planet, forming powerful auroras and disrupting power grids, electronics and satellites.

The scientific study of space weather attempts to understand, track and predict this solar activity, which peaks with a solar maximum every 11 years. The current solar cycle is expected to reach its peak in 2024. So, what might this mean for you?

Solar energy to the maximum

From Earth, the Sun appears relatively stationary. It rises and sets, providing a constant stream of energy that supports almost all life on our planet. But when viewed at other wavelengths, such as radio or X-rays, it becomes clear that the Sun is changing all the time.

Electrically conductive plasma moves and flows beneath the surface, forming powerful beams of magnetic fields. When these rise to the surface, they form sunspots – dark spots of cold plasma. Sunspots are an important tool in tracking the probability of a major space weather event.

Solar Dynamics Observatory view of the Sun.  Near the upper left, three large sunspots appear as dark spots on the smooth surface.

A series of sunspots captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. These regions of cold, magnetically charged plasma can explode as flares or coronal mass ejections. Image credit: NASA/GFSC/SDO

Dr. Mark Cheung is the Scientific Director for Space and Astronomy.

“The magnetic fields inside sunspots are comparable in strength to an MRI machine, but the size of entire planets,” Mark said.

When sunspots collide, they squeeze the magnetic beams until they break off. This leads to solar flares and explosions. Ultraviolet and X-rays from the flares blast our outer atmosphere, reaching Earth in less than nine minutes. This radiation increases drag on satellites and can also disturb the ionosphere, causing radio blackouts and producing powerful aurora.

Heavier particles, such as protons, take about 15 minutes to reach Earth. These “solar particles” can damage the electronics of satellites in orbit. They can even increase the radiation dose to passengers and flight crew near the poles.

In more extreme cases, entire beams of magnetic plasma Coronal mass ejection (CME) It can be thrown to the ground. CMEs travel at speeds of thousands of kilometers per second. If they were perfectly aligned with the Earth’s magnetosphere, they could have a huge impact.

“The beams of magnetic fields and charged materials could hit us like a bell tolling, causing the Earth’s magnetosphere to vibrate violently,” Mark said.

“Power outages could occur in the area, satellites could sustain significant damage, and oil pipelines could corrode faster.”

Sunspot numbers wax and wane over an 11-year cycle, with the largest number appearing during solar maximum. More sunspots mean more collisions, leading to stronger space weather.

Identify, track and forecast

Flares are rated on a scale from A, B, C, M, to X – with X being the strongest.

The X2.8 flare in mid-December 2023 was quickly eclipsed on January 1, 2024, with the same location giving birth to the X5.0 flare. This is the strongest glow seen since 2017.

“These were the biggest fireworks ever in the solar system, and it’s a good way to kick off 2024,” Mark said.

While it is usually only visible in the far north and far south of the Earth, powerful flares and coronal ejections can make the aurora visible near the equator. As solar activity increases as we head toward maximum, sky watchers can expect to see more aurora borealis. Keep searching!

The science of predicting individual flare events is advancing rapidly, thanks to a combination of ground-based and space-based observatories, combined with machine learning for space weather forecasting.

An artist’s impression of the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has been monitoring the Sun’s features continuously since 2010. Image source: NASA/GFSC

Spacecraft such as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is on the front line of space weather science. SDO makes regular measurements of the Sun’s magnetic field to track changes in its surface and interior over time.

“This has allowed people to track the geometry of magnetic fields and the development of sunspots, which serve as indicators of upcoming solar flares and explosions,” Mark said.

However, SDO observations cannot tell us whether the coronal ejection is heading directly toward Earth, on its way to a glancing strike, or magnetically aligned with Earth’s magnetosphere.

To get this kind of insight, we need to go back to Earth, to our group of radio observatories. Radio telescopes at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, can measure interplanetary scintillation, a type of “shimmer” caused by the solar wind.

“If the solar wind changes, its scintillation changes too, and we have an opportunity to observe the solar wind and its emissions,” Mark said.

Our research scientist, Dr. John Morgan, is enhancing our ability through interplanetary scintillation and similar observational techniques.

“Space weather scientists internationally have an amazing array of instruments to observe the Sun in great detail,” John said.

“What we are trying to develop is the ability to track a coronal ejection during its journey from the Sun to the Earth. This almost unique ability will have the potential to greatly improve our prediction abilities.”

Radio observatories, such as ASKAP at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory, can measure the “blink” of astronomical objects through the solar wind, providing insight into space weather events.

Coordinated effort

The Bureau of Meteorology is the Australian Government’s lead agency for space weather and operates the Australian Space Weather Prediction Centre.

Through the Forecast Center, the office provides space weather information and warning services to potentially affected industries and government agencies, including the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Situation Chamber and the community.

Its capability is focused on severe to extreme events that may threaten critical infrastructure, including radio communications, satellite operations, GPS navigation, mineral exploration, pipeline protection and electricity supply networks. The office works closely with the space industry and operations that can be affected by space weather events – such as the aerospace, energy, defense and communications industries – to tailor forecasts and warnings to their specific needs.

The Bureau’s space weather observation network spans the Australian region and Antarctica, and includes the Learmonth Solar Observatory, a network of magnetometers, radiometers and ionsonde to provide continuous real-time observations, and total scintillation monitors of the GNSS electron content. The office also exchanges data with Australian and international organizations.

Accurate and timely warnings are important to provide airlines time to redirect aircraft, satellite operators time to adjust their orbits, and communities the opportunity to prepare for power or radio outages.

(Tags for translation) Space weather

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