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ESA Solar Orbiter Captures Dramatic Changes as Sun Approaches Solar Cycle Peak


The solar cycle has been well understood since 1843 when Samuel Schwabe spent 17 years observing variations in sunspots. Since then, scientists have routinely observed the ebb and flow of the sunspot cycle every 11 years.

Recently, the European space agency ESA’s Solar Orbiter probe captured regular images of the Sun to track its development as it approaches the peak of the current solar cycle.

Two recently released images captured from February 2021 to October 2023 show how conditions actually increase as the Sun approaches its maximum point.

Photo of the Sun in February 2021. Photo: Solar Orbiter/ESA Photo of the Sun in October 2023. Photo: Solar Orbiter/ESA

The sun is a huge ball of plasma, an electrically charged gas, which has the extraordinary property of being able to move magnetic fields that may be embedded within it. When the Sun rotates, the magnetic field is dragged along with it. But because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at the poles, the field lines become closer together.

Quoted from Science Alert, under this enormous pressure, field lines sometimes break, fracture or penetrate the surface of the Sun. When that happens, we will see sunspots.

These dark patches on the visible surface of the Sun are areas of denser concentration of the Sun’s material inhibiting the flow of heat to the visible surface, giving rise to slightly cooler and darker patches on the Sun.

A collage of the latest images of the Sun captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope. This image represents a small amount of solar data obtained during Inouye’s first year of operation in the commissioning phase. The image includes sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun known as convection cells. Photo: Solar Orbiter/ESA

The slow rotation of the Sun and the slow but continuous winding of the field lines cause the Sunspots to become more numerous as the field becomes more distorted.

If observed over several years, these spots appear to migrate slowly from the polar regions to the equatorial regions as the solar cycle progresses.

To help understand these complex cycles and uncover other mysteries of the Sun, ESA launched Solar Orbiter on February 10, 2020. Its mission is to explore the Sun’s polar regions to understand what drives the Sun’s 11-year cycle and what drives the Sun’s heating cycle of the corona, the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere.

The image released by Solar Orbiter shows a close-up view of the Sun’s surface, the photosphere as it approaches the peak of the Sun’s activity.

At the start of the cycle, during solar minimum conditions in 2019, there was relatively little activity and only a few sunspots. Since then, things have slowly improved. Images from February 2021 show a fairly calm Sun, but images taken in October last year show that things appear to be heating up.

This maximum cycle is expected to occur in 2025 which supports the theory that the period of maximum activity could occur a year earlier.

Understanding these cycles is not just of scientific interest, but is critical to ensuring we minimize damage to ground-based and orbiting systems, as well as understanding their impact on life on Earth.

Watch the video “NASA will ‘touch’ the sun, 7 times closer than before”


2024-02-24 15:00:26
#Dramatic #Photo #Sun #Years

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