Photo: RBerteig (flickr)
Astronomers make a business of staring at the sun.
Actually, they have special telescopes and satellites that do the staring, and then they analyze the data that is brought in.
Not long ago, a sunspot was seen by researchers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Sunspots are magnetic phenomena that pop up on the sun’s surface, bob around a bit, and disappear again. Like everything about the sun, however, these spots are huge, each as big as a planet.
Now, seeing a sunspot is nothing unusual. This one, though, caught some interest, because it was backwards.
Backwards, in solar-science circles, means that the two poles of the giant floating magnet were opposite what they should have been. For years, all the sunspots have had their north pole on the same end, and their south pole on the other. This sunspot had its south pole where all its neighbors have their north. What does it mean?
It may mean that a new solar cycle is beginning. Solar cycles are periods of heightened and lessened magnetic activity on the sun. The sun’s magnetic field fluctuates from calm to stormy about every eleven years. A new cycle is due to begin any time now, and the backwards sunspot may be the first sign that it has started.
If it has, look for brighter auroras here on earth and an increased number of proton storms. Those are clouds of charged particles fired out of the sun that can damage satellites and make radio signals do crazy things.
Hold on to your solar hats, folks, but be patient, because since the solar activity cycle is about eleven years long it might take awhile to reach maximum.