Sun goes longer than normal without producing sunspots

June 09, 2008

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- The sun has been laying low for the past couple of years, producing no sunspots and giving a break to satellites.

That's good news for people who scramble when space weather interferes with their technology, but it became a point of discussion for the scientists who attended an international solar conference at Montana State University. Approximately 100 scientists from Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and North America gathered June 1-6 to talk about "Solar Variability, Earth's Climate and the Space Environment."

The scientists said periods of inactivity are normal for the sun, but this period has gone on longer than usual.

"It continues to be dead," said Saku Tsuneta with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, program manager for the Hinode solar mission. "That's a small concern, a very small concern."

The Hinode satellite is a Japanese mission with the United States and United Kingdom as partners. The satellite carries three telescopes that together show how changes on the sun's surface spread through the solar atmosphere. MSU researchers are among those operating the X-ray telescope. The satellite orbits 431 miles above ground, crossing both poles and making one lap every 95 minutes, giving Hinode an uninterrupted view of the sun for several months out of the year.

Dana Longcope, a solar physicist at MSU, said the sun usually operates on an 11-year cycle with maximum activity occurring in the middle of the cycle. Minimum activity generally occurs as the cycles change. Solar activity refers to phenomena like sunspots, solar flares and solar eruptions. Together, they create the weather than can disrupt satellites in space and technology on earth.

The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now, Longcope said. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. Today's sun, however, is as inactive as it was two years ago, and scientists aren't sure why.

"It's a dead face," Tsuneta said of the sun's appearance.

Tsuneta said solar physicists aren't like weather forecasters; They can't predict the future. They do have the ability to observe, however, and they have observed a longer-than-normal period of solar inactivity. In the past, they observed that the sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a little ice age on Earth that lasted from 1650 to 1700.

Tsuneta said he doesn't know how long the sun will continue to be inactive, but scientists associated with the Hinode mission are ready for it to resume maximum activity. They have added extra ground stations to pick up signals from Hinode in case solar activity interferes with instruments at other stations around the world. The new stations, ready to start operating this summer, are located in India, Norway, Alaska and the South Pole.

Establishing those stations, as well as the Hinode mission, required international cooperation, Tsuneta said. No one country had the resources to carry out those projects by itself.

Four countries, three space agencies and 11 organizations worked together on Hinode which was launched in September 2006, Tsuneta said. Among the collaborators was Loren Acton, a research professor of physics at MSU. Tsuneta and Acton worked together closely from 1986-2002 and were reunited at the MSU conference.

"His leadership was immense, superb," Tsuneta said about Acton.

Acton, 72, said he is still enthused about solar physics and the new questions being raised. In fact, he wished he could knock 22 years off his age and extend his career even longer.

"It's too much fun," he said. "There's so much exciting stuff come up, I would like to be part of it."
-end-
A related article on the Hinode mission is located at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=4902

Montana State University

Related Ice Age Articles from Brightsurf:

Ice discharge in the North Pacific set off series of climate events during last ice age
Repeated catastrophic ice discharges from western North America into the North Pacific contributed to, and perhaps triggered, hemispheric-scale changes in the Earth's climate during the last ice age.

Ice Age manatees may have called Texas home
Manatees don't live year-round in Texas, but these gentle sea cows are known to occasionally visit, swimming in for a 'summer vacation' and returning to warmer waters for the winter.

Sea ice triggered the Little Ice Age, finds a new study
A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.

How cold was the ice age? Researchers now know
A University of Arizona-led team has nailed down the temperature of the last ice age -- the Last Glacial Maximum of 20,000 years ago - to about 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

What causes an ice age to end?
Research by an international team helps to resolve some of the mystery of why ice ages end by establishing when they end.

New study results consistent with dog domestication during ice age
Analysis of Paleolithic-era teeth from a 28,500-year-old fossil site in the Czech Republic provides supporting evidence for two groups of canids -- one dog-like and the other wolf-like - with differing diets, which is consistent with the early domestication of dogs.

Did an extraterrestrial impact trigger the extinction of ice-age animals?
Based on research at White Pond near Elgin, South Carolina, University of South Carolina archaeologist Christopher Moore and 16 colleagues present new evidence of a controversial theory that suggests an extraterrestrial body crashing to Earth almost 13,000 years ago caused the extinction of many large animals and a probable population decline in early humans.

Dust in ice cores leads to new knowledge on the advancement of the ice before the ice age
Working with the ice core ReCap, drilled close to the coast in East Greenland, postdoc Marius Simonsen wondered why the dust particles from the interglacial period -- the warmer period of time between the ice ages -- were several times bigger than the dust particles from the ice age.

Ice-sheet variability during the last ice age from the perspective of marine sediment
By using marine sediment cores from Northwestern Australia, a Japanese team led by National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and the University of Tokyo revealed that the global ice sheet during the last ice age had changed in shorter time scale than previously thought.

What triggered the 100,000-year Ice Age cycle?
A slowing of ocean circulation in the waters surrounding Antarctica drastically altered the strength and more than doubled the length of global ice ages following the mid-Pleistocene transition, a new study finds.

Read More: Ice Age News and Ice Age Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.