New Sunspot Cycle Begins

From Space Weather News for Jan. 4, 2008

Solar physicists have been waiting for the appearance of a reversed-polarity sunspot to signal the start of the next solar cycle. The wait is over.

A magnetically reversed, high-latitude sunspot emerged today. This marks the beginning of Solar Cycle 24 and the first step toward a new solar maximum. Intense solar activity won’t begin right away. Solar cycles usually take a few years to build from solar minimum (where we are now) to Solar Max (expected in 2011 or 2012). It’s a slow journey, but we’re on our way!

Visit http://spaceweather.com for pictures of the new sunspot and updates.

Here’s my review an interesting book written as the 23rd cycle was about to begin. Its predictions are more relevant today than they were 11 years ago. For more reviews of books about space and astronomy, visit my Science Shelf space links page.

THE 23RD CYCLE: LEARNING TO LIVE WITH A STORMY STAR by Sten Odenwald

During the year 2000, for the twenty-third time since scientists discovered the dark blotches, the number of sunspots reached the peak of their eleven-year cycle. As Sten Odenwald (author of The Astronomy Cafe) and other scientists expected, the proliferation of solar storms produced marked effects on Earth, including an increase in the intensity and extent of auroras.

But Odenwald warns that The 23rd Cycle may produce other, less welcome effects before it reaches its quiescent end in 2006, and the 24th cycle will be even more problematic. His prediction is based not on astronomy or geology, but on the increasing vulnerability of advanced technology to space weather phenomena, such as bursts of x-rays and energetic particles or geomagnetic storms.

Citing failures during previous solar events, our increasingly networked digital infrastructure, and our growing reliance on space-based technology, Odenwald foresees problems with communication, navigation, electric power grids, and corroding pipelines, all of which all subject to sudden failure from events that begin on the sun. Astronauts may suffer radiation sickness — even death — if caught with insufficient protection and warning.

The problems are sociological and political as well as technological, Odenwald asserts. As space-based business proliferates, it is often advantageous to hide small failures due to space weather or to attribute them to other causes. Practical technological needs carry little weight when NASA funding depends on scientific merit, Odenwald declares, calling for more funding to understand and predict space weather.

On that point, he is hardly objective. He himself did not become involved in solar physics and public outreach until budget realities ended his fifteen years of research on an infrared astronomy project.

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