Tag Archives: sunspot

It’s been a week since a solar observatory was mysteriously closed — and we still don’t know why

When the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot in the US state of New Mexico closed down a week ago, not much was said about it — the FBI was reportedly involved but we didn’t know what really happened. Naturally, speculation spread like wildfire, with ideas ranging from an accidental interception of military signals to a detection of alien life. Now, James McAteer, the Observatory director, has said that they haven’t detected aliens — but we still don’t know anything else.

Initially, Shari Lifson, spokeswoman for Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) stated:

“We have decided to temporarily vacate this facility as a precautionary measure. And we’re working with the proper authorities on this issue.”

But things got more heated after Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News: “The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” Employees from the solar observatory made similar statements.

“We have absolutely no idea what is going on,” says Alisdair Davey, a data center scientist at the National Solar Observatory (NSO). “As in truly nothing, which in itself is just weird.”

The entire staff was reportedly sent home, with all the buildings on site being closed. Even a small U.S. Postal Service office on the same site as Sunspot that mostly handles mail deliveries for the observatory has been shut down.

To clear out some of the speculations that have been floating around, this almost surely has nothing to do with aliens. Not only has McAteer issued a statement on this, but any aliens that would be in our relative vicinity wouldn’t likely be detectable with telescopes.

Rather, the reason for this shut down could be much more earthly: the Sunspot observatory overlooks Holloman Air Force Base, and there are suspicions that an observer could potentially peek into the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Test range. So this may have something to do with espionage.

“New Mexico is a center of national-security-related science, and for that reason it has also been a prominent venue for foreign espionage,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Spies go where the secrets are, and there are plenty of secrets in New Mexico.”

But this also seems rather unlikely, as all the telescope’s sensors would be pointed upwards, not towards an earthly objective. Lastly, the strict involvement of the FBI, which closed and evacuated the area but didn’t say a word about why they were doing this, only adds to the mystery. Sheriff House added:

“They wanted us up there to help evacuate but nobody would tell us anything. We went up there and everything was good. There was no threat. Nobody would identify any specific threat. We hung out for a little while then we left. No reason for us to be there. Nobody would tell us what we’re supposed to be watching out for.”

Hopefully, we’ll find out what happened soon enough.

Despite slowing solar activity, NASA spots larger-than-Earth sunspot

Things were getting pretty quiet up there, but the Sun delivered quite a show: a massive, 75,000-mile sun spot.

This sunspot appeared after two days of a spot-free solar surface. Image credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO/Joy Ng.

It looks like little more than a freckle on the Sun’s surface, but size is relative, and this particular freckle is larger than our entire planet. Sunspots are dark areas formed due to concentrations of magnetic field flux that inhibit convection and reduce temperature. Sunspots are still very hot, but they’re just cooler than their surrounding.

While there is some erratic behavior, sunspot formation largely depends on the sun’s 11-year magnetic cycle. As we’re nearing the end of the cycle, astronomers weren’t expecting heavy activity from the sun until 2020, but the star threw a curveball. It was an average-sized sunspot (typically, they vary between 10 and 100,000 miles in diameter), quickly moving across the star’s surface.

NASA’s Sun Dynamics Observatory satellite first noticed the activity on July 5 and watched it grow until July 11. Now, the space agency has released this video, adding the Earth’s size for scale — just to put the gargantuan sun into perspective.

Sunspots are observed with land-based and Earth-orbiting solar telescopes. To astronomers, they are useful for predicting space weather and the state of the ionosphere. Sunspots have also been noticed on other planets — though of course, in that case, they’re called starspots instead.

sun polarity

Sun to flip its magnetic field in a few months

The Sun is gearing up for a major polarity switch, NASA announced: the North Pole which was in the northern hemisphere, has now started pointing south. The solar magnetic polarity reversal cycle has an 11 year period, which is still not fully understood.

sun polarity

“This always happens around the time of solar maximum,” says David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “The magnetic poles exchange places at the peak of the sunspot cycle. In fact, it’s a good indication that Solar Max is really here.”

This won’t have a major effect on Earth.

“The sun’s north pole has already changed sign, while the south pole is racing to catch up,” Scherrer said. “Soon, however, both poles will be reversed, and the second half of solar max will be underway.”

The Solar cycle was discovered all the way back in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, who after 17 years of observations noticed a periodic variation in the average number of sunspots seen from year to year on the solar disk. Initially, it was measured that there were 28 cycles in the 309 years between 1699 and 2008, giving an average length of 11.04 years. However, more recent measurements seem to indicate that the longest cycle was actually 2 cycles, so the average was pushed back to 10.66 years.

The Earth has magnetic pole reversals, though they are very different, varying in periodicity from 5.000 to 50.000.000 years! The last terran polar reversal took place 740.000 years ago, which makes many geologists believe that our planet is way overdue for a reversal.

The current solar cycle was the weakest one in the past 100 years, astronomers believe.


Sun’s magnetic ‘heartbeat’ is discovered

A magnetic solar ‘heartbeat’ beats deep down in the Sun’s interior, generating energy that leads to solar flares and sunspots.

Solar flares and sunspots

solar flare

A solar flare is a large energy release in the form of a sudden brightening of the surface or the solar limb. The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. The frequency of solar flares varies from several each day (when the star is active) to less than one a week. Solar flares were first observed on the Sun by Richard Christopher Carrington and independently by Richard Hodgson in 1859, and since then they were observed on other stars.


Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the sun’s surface which appear as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. Basically, whenever certain conditions are met, intense magnetic activity inhibits the convection currents which typically occur in the Sun. This results in an area which is significantly cooler than its surrounding region. They usually appear as pairs, with each sunspot having the opposite magnetic pole than the other.

Modelling the Sun

A new supercomputer simulation, described in the April 4 edition of the journal Science, probes the sun’s periodic magnetic field reversals. According to this model, a solar cycle 4 times longer than the 11 year sunspot cycle governs the level of solar activity. Being able to create a model that fits the actual data so well and creates such a regular pattern is remarkable, astrophysicists say.

magnetic sun

Modelling the Sun has always been a problematic issue; turbulence occurs both at small and large scales, and even though big ones are relatively easy to model with today’s technology, small scale turbulences are much harder to figure out – but they’re just as important in understanding how fluid propagates.

Whenever a vortex is formed on the surface of the Sun, the energy dissipates into smaller and smaller whirpool shapes, called vortices. You can test this out yourselves, by swirling your hand in the bathtub. The movement will break up into smaller ones, which will subsequently break off into smaller ones, and so on. However, on the surface of the Sun, which is ~1 million times larger than that of the Earth, dissipation takes place at a scale of tens of meters. Of course, judging by scale, these features are much too small to be taken into account by any model.

“There’s no way we can capture that in a simulation,” Charbonneau explained.

When conducitng such approximations for models, the resolution goes to about 10 kilometers – this insufficient resolution gradually creates an energy build up that “blows up” the model before running too lon.

Stopping the “blow up”

Co-author Piotr Smolarkiewicz of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, focuses his work on meteorology rather than astronomy. His input was decisive, because the same turbulence principles apply to both fields.

His team used supercomputers at the University of Montreal that are linked to Calcul Québec, a network of large computers used across the province of Quebec. Trying to find a workaround the blow up problem, they created a model that dissipates the energy just as the collapse is about to happen.

“It’s not easy to do in a fluid system like that. If you start removing energy too quick, you will affect the global dynamics of the system,” Charbonneau said.

The model isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely a big step forward.

“There’s a link between convective energy transport and the magnetic cycle, and you can measure that through going through the simulation and pulling out the flows, the primary variables,” Charbonneau said. “Once you have a magnetic cycle that builds up and develops in the simulation,” he added, “you can analyze how that affects convective transport and the sun’s luminosity.”

NASA observers rapidly growing sun spot

What you see in this picture is two black spots on the sun, known as sunspots, which appeared quickly over the course of Feb. 19-20, 2013 and have grown quickly over the past couple of days.


Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the Sun that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions; they are caused by magnetic activity which inhibits the convection typically taking place in the Sun. Just like magnets, they have two poles.

In order to take this remarkable picture, NASA combined images from two instruments on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO): the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI), which just takes pictures in visible light and the Advanced Imaging Assembly (AIA), which took an image in the 304 Angstrom wavelength showing the lower atmosphere of the sun, which is colorized in red.

In the past two days, researchers have watched magnetic fields on the sun rearrange and realign, creating the sunspots which quickly grew to a diameter of ~6 Earths. They then evolved to what is called a delta region, in which the lighter areas around the sunspot, the penumbra, exhibit magnetic fields that point in the opposite direction of those fields in the center, dark area. This configuration is believed to be highly unstable, and can possibly lead to the creation of solar flares. So far, no official warming has been issued, but astronomers are keeping a close eye on the development.


False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth's magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

Powerful solar flare headed our way set to spark beautiful Northern Lights

False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth's magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

False-color image of the recently erupted, powerful X-class solar flare, whose corronal mass ejection is expected to reach Earth’s magnetic field this Saturday morning. (c) NASA

Astronomers have surprised a blast of charged solar particles erupting from a massive solarspot, recently. The unleashed X-class solar flare is expected to reach Earth’s magnetic field on Saturday morning (2:52 p.m. EDT). Scientists warrant that there’s a chance temporary disruptions to GPS signals, radio communications and power grids might occur. Of greater interest for most of us though, is the consequent magnificent display of Northern Lights, slated to extend as far as far south as California and Alabama.

In 2013 the sun will approach the end of its eleven year cycle, which is always followed by X-class solar flares, which might cause communication disruptions as they hit vulnerable satellites. This recent major X-class solar flare serves as an appetizer.

[HOW aurora borealis (Northern Lights) form – VIDEO]

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares 10,000 times more powerful than those in our solar system, observed on sun-like stars

Some stars, most often during their early life, exhibit an intense and energetic behavior, much greater than that of our own sun, despite a similar size, per say. In the first survey of its kind, scientists at Kyoto University have analyzed sun flares erupting on the surface of distant stars through out our galaxy. They found that some solar flares were even 10,000 times more powerful than those shot by the sun.

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Superflares (white) and sunspots (dark). (c) Kyoto University

Just a few days ago, I wrote a bit on how solar flares and coronal mass ejections occur, and the impacts they might have on the Earth. The biggest concern involves electrical flooding of the grid after highly charged CMEs hit the Earth, which might cause severe damage to power lines, communication and GPS satellites and just about anything electronic; even if its unplugged (!). The largest recorded solar flare event occurred on  1 September 1859, and chance had it that British astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun right at the eruption moment, noting a great brightness as he was drawing sunspots for his sketches. Just hours later, when the eruption finally hit Earth, telegraph lines went down and flashed sparks even though batteries were disconnected. However, this paled in oddity compared to the massive aurora borealis which extended as far as the tropic at the event! It must had been a massive sun flare indeed, but considering the first electrically light city was still at least 20 years away, beyond the big scare and slew of superstitions unleashed, the event didn’t affect the life of human society at the time.

Were the Carrington event to happen today, things would’ve been a lot different. Imagine a world thrown in complete and utter pitch black darkness. Chaos. Now, imagine an event 10,000 times more powerful.

Some, maybe even more powerful, were observed by the Japanese scientists which analyzed four months worth of data delivered by the Kepler Telescope, directed towards a certain patch in the sky. The telescope’s main role is that of studying the slight shifts in brightness of stars, which might correspond to the moment an orbiting planet is passing in front of the sun, facing the observer. When you’ve got your “eye” right on the stars, it’s a pity actually not to dwell further deep and see what goes around beyond potentially orbiting exoplanets.

The Kyoto based researchers found that out of 83,000 stars of the same type as the Sun, 148 (about 0.2%) had superflares with energies between 10 and 10,000 times greater than the Carrington event. Most of the massive sun flares occurred on star which have a short period of ration, generally just 10 days, compared to a month required by the sun to  make a complete revolution around its axis. Because these stars spin faster, they have more magnetic energy to burn, translating in more powerful eruptions.

Back to the Earth and massive solar flare hypothesis; a solar flare 10,000 times more powerful than those we’re currently experiencing nowadays would mean total annihilation of all life on Earth, instantly. The O-zone layer would simply shred to pieces, leaving way for massive amounts of radiation. But would the sun ever be capable of generating such an eruption. Scientists believe such an event is highly unlikely. All the massive solar flares were joined by giant sun spots, as well, a connection known for some time by scientists; these solar spots are a lot bigger than those usually surfaced on the sun. It still can fry all of our global electronics, though.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.



NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Huge sunspots the size of the Earth warns of potential massive solar storms

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this photo recently showing massive sunspot groups on the sun's surface

Astronomers have observed a huge sunspot group on the surface of the sun, sized at more than 60,000 miles across, which might outbreak in a potentially hazardous solar storm.

From time to time, the sun spews huge energy releases called solar flares, which depending on their magnitude (the weakest are “C” class and the most powerful are “X” class) can cause radio blackouts and irremediable damage to satellites. Powerful sun flares are sometimes, however, joined by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. CMEs are what cause the beautiful northern and southern lights, or auroras, but they can also inflict catastrophic events. Coronal mass ejections are caused when the magnetic field in the sun’s atmosphere gets disrupted and then the plasma, the sun’s hot ionized gas, erupts and send charged particles into space.

If the geomagnetic storm caused by the CMEs is big enough, it can cause a damaging extra electrical current to flow through the grid. Some of you might remember the 1989 Quebec incident, when the whole city was blackout after the entire grid got fried, causing an estimate $2 billion Canadian in damage at the time. Besides blackouts, CMEs can also disrupt GPS signals and radio telecommunications.

Both CMEs and sun flares most often sprout from active regions around sunspots.

AR 1476, the huge sunspot complex I’ve mentioned earlier, might just be a birthplace for havoc. Another sunspot group, albeit smaller, called AR 1471, already erupted Monday evening with a M1 flare – one of the least powerful.

“With at least four dark cores larger than Earth, AR 1476 sprawls more than 100,000 km from end to end, and makes an easy target for backyard solar telescopes,” the website Spaceweather.com reported Monday.

The sun’s activity naturally lowers and increases in its 11-year cycle – towards the end of the cycle, like it’s the case currently, the sun is most active. The current cycle, known as  Solar Cycle 24, is set to peak in 2013.

Sunspot 1302: big, bad, and coming our way

Every three hours throughout the day, magnetic observers located all around our planet measure the biggest magnetic change that their instruments can record during that period. All the measured values are averaged all over the world and an index is obtained (the Kp index), telling researchers how disturbed the Earth’s magnetic field is on a 9 point scale.

The huge 1302 sunspot unleashed another powerful flare on Saturday morning, and yesterday (Monday) a geomagnetic storm with a Kp index of 8 started; it is still in progress. The Goddard Space Weather Lab reported a strong compression of Earth’s magnetosphere and simulations suggest that solar wind plasma has penetrated close to geosynchronous orbit starting at 9am.

The active region (AR) dubbed 1302 has already unleashed M8.6 and M7.4 flares on Sept. 24 and an M8.8 flare early on Sept. 25, but none of them were directed at our planet; however, this is bound to change as the sunspot changes its direction towards Earth, and once it does, we will definitely begin to feel its activity. AR 1302 is not slowing down, and its actually increasing its activity.


First time 360 view of the SUN

Forget the Moon – for the first time ever we have a full view of the star in our solar system, as can be seen from images recently released by NASA. The pictures of the Sun were taken with the STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory). The goal of the project is to monitor movements of mass and energy from the Sun to the Earth; phenomena such as coronal mass ejections (violent explosions on the Sun’s surface) can cause a significant amount of trouble, disrupting communications, navigation, satellites and power grids.

The goal is to allow a better and more accurate forecast of when these events will take place and thus saving people a whole lot of trouble and money. Equipped with special telescopes that monitor certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light, the spacecraft is set to orbit the Sun slightly closer and slightly farther away from the Earth, adjusting speeds so that their relative positions change gradually over time.

“Not anymore,” said Bill Murtagh, senior forecaster at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in a statement. “Thanks to STEREO, we know they’re coming.”

Aside from providing a 360 view of the Sun, STEREO will also allow researchers to closer track the formation of sunspots on the part of the Sun facing away from the Earth; sunspots are cooler and darker areas, often associated with causing communication breakdowns. But they won’t take us by surprise now.

The most detailed photo of a Sun Spot to date captured by the Big Bear Solar Observatory

Now, that’s not Sauron’s eye. Pictured above is the most highly detailed photo of a sunspot ever taken at present date, captured and recently released by the Big Bear Solar Observatory, CA. The whole event was captured by Big Bear’s New Solar Telescope (NST), which has a resolution covering about 50 miles on the Sun’s surface.

This photo of a sunspot is now the most detailed ever obtained in visible light,” according to Ciel et l’Espace.   In September, the popular astronomy magazine will publish several more photos of the Sun taken with BBSO’s new adaptive optics system.

Scientists believe magnetic structures like sunspots are very important to understanding space weather.  Space weather, which originates in the Sun, can have dire consequences on Earth’s climate and environment.  A serious solar storm can disrupt power grids and communication, destroy satellites and even expose airline pilots, crew and passengers to radiation.  The NST data will be fundamental for future research in the field.