Experts from the U.S. National Atmospheric and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say the sun is in the first year of a new cycle of activity, and they are watching it closely in an effort to guard against solar storms that could cause problems on Earth.
Officials at NOAA explain that the sun, just like Earth, goes through “seasonal” cycles, which astronomers have been recording since 1755. The Solar Prediction Panel, chaired by experts from NOAA and the NASA space agency, monitors these cycles that last about 11 years.
They report a solar minimum between Solar Cycle 24 and 25 — the period when the sun is least active — happened in December 2019, putting Earth eight months into the first year of Solar Cycle 25. The panel expects sunspot or solar flare activity to peak over the next five years.
Elsayed Talaat, NOAA’s director of planning and analysis, said if solar flares — bursts of electromagnetic energy out of the sun — are big enough, they can cause serious problems on Earth, including high frequency communication used by airlines or emergency responders, satellites, GPS navigation systems, cellphones, solar panels and more.
Radiation from solar flares can also be dangerous for astronauts, especially those working outside the International Space Station, and for future explorers to the moon.
Talaat said NASA and NOAA have developed the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan to help mitigate these events.
“We have instituted space weather as part of the international, national emergency and local, state and local emergency management exercises,” he said.
NOAA has also established the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado, to monitor solar activity, much the way NOAA’s National Hurricane Center monitors tropical storms. Using NASA’s satellites and solar observatories can give forecasts and warnings of solar activity that could impact the Earth.
Last month, the SWPC closely watched a minor solar flare, or “coronal mass ejection,” (CME) as it occurred on the sun, and the resulting electromagnetic material as it approached Earth. Luckily, that potential solar storm mostly missed the planet, but forecasters say it gave them valuable experience for future events.