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Sunspots larger than 15 Earths may soon unleash powerful solar storms

The latest images from NASA, revealing a large cluster of sunspots on the sun’s surface, illustrate fascinating aspects of our nearest star. These sunspots, appearing as small, pepper-like dots, are actually cooler areas on the sun’s surface, resulting from dramatic shifts in its magnetic field.

Captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has been observing the sun for over a decade, these sunspots form an “archipelago’” that spans more than 15 Earths in width, roughly 120,000 miles across.

Solar storms and sunspots

These sunspots are significant not just for their size but also for their potential to unleash powerful solar storms towards Earth. Such storms can cause geomagnetic disturbances, posing risks to power grids, satellites, and other technologies reliant on Earth’s magnetic field. 

Sunspots are cooler and darker compared to the surrounding areas on the sun’s surface, with temperatures still reaching a scorching 6,500°F. They are closely associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), immense energy explosions that contribute to solar storms.

When these solar flares and CMEs occur, they eject enormous clouds of charged gas into space, sometimes directly toward Earth, traveling at incredible speeds. These events can disrupt various technological systems on Earth, including power grids, communications, GPS navigation, and air travel. However, they are also responsible for the creation of beautiful auroras.

Vibrational patterns 

Space Weather, which monitors solar and Earth interactions, had anticipated the emergence of this sunspot group even before its capture by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The size of the sunspot cluster is so immense that it influences the sun’s vibrational patterns. 

Helioseismologists, using these vibrations, detected the sunspot group while it was still on the sun’s far side, with parts of the group yet to fully emerge into view.

Impact of sunspots on the Earth

According to, there is potential for Earth-directed M and X solar flares in the coming days. M flares can cause brief radio blackouts in the polar regions and minor radiation storms, while X flares are capable of triggering extensive radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. 

Chris Wicklund, a meteorologist, noted that these sunspots have been actively flaring, suggesting that the upcoming weeks could be significant as the solar particles reach Earth. According to him, this sunspot region is one of the largest observed in the current solar cycle.

Sunspots and the solar cycle

The solar cycle, approximately 11 years in duration, involves a complete reversal of the sun’s magnetic field, leading to a switch in its north and south poles. The ongoing solar cycle, numbered 25, started in 2019 and is expected to last until around 2030. 

The sun’s activity, including the prevalence of sunspots, varies within this cycle, starting with the solar minimum, characterized by fewer sunspots, and gradually moving towards a solar maximum with increased solar activity. 

Despite the relative tranquility of the solar minimum, this period can still produce solar storms due to solar flares, which occur when energy stored in the sun’s ‘twisted’ magnetic fields is suddenly released.

More about sunspots

Sunspots are fascinating solar phenomena that have intrigued scientists and astronomers for centuries. Essentially, they are darker, cooler areas on the sun’s surface, known as the photosphere. These spots, appearing as temporary blemishes, contrast sharply with the surrounding areas due to their reduced temperature.

Formation and characteristics

Cause of sunspots — Sunspots form due to the sun’s intense magnetic activity. The sun’s magnetic field lines can become twisted and tangled, and when these lines become concentrated in a small area, they inhibit the flow of heat from the sun’s interior to its surface. This results in cooler, darker regions that we see as sunspots.

Appearance and size – Typically, sunspots appear darker than their surrounding areas because they are thousands of degrees cooler. They vary greatly in size, with some being as small as Earth, while others can grow to be many times larger.

The sunspot cycle

Predictable pattern — Sunspots follow an 11-year cycle, known as the solar cycle. During the solar maximum, sunspots are numerous, and during the solar minimum, they are rare. This cycle plays a crucial role in solar radiation and is a significant aspect of solar studies.

Impact on Earth — Sunspots can influence Earth in various ways. During periods of high sunspot activity, solar flares and coronal mass ejections are more frequent, potentially impacting satellite operations, communication systems, and power grids on Earth.

Observing sunspots

Safe observation techniques — Observing sunspots requires special techniques as looking directly at the sun can cause severe eye damage. Using a properly filtered telescope or a projection method is safe and effective for sunspot observation.

Historical observations — Historical records of sunspot observations date back to ancient times, but the scientific study began in earnest with Galileo’s telescopic observations in the early 17th century. These observations have contributed significantly to our understanding of the sun’s behavior.

In summary, studying sunspots is crucial for understanding the sun’s magnetic field and its effects on solar radiation. This knowledge is vital for predicting space weather and understanding the broader impact on Earth’s environment and human technology.

As our observation techniques improve, our comprehension of these mesmerizing solar features continues to grow, unveiling new insights into our closest star.

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