How do scientists track the solar cycle?

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Ricky Joseph

The new solar cycle has now begun, and what this means we cover in this text. But after all, how do scientists track the solar cycle? What is the parameter used to determine this?

The Mount Wilson Observatory in the United States has already become home to astronomer Steve Padilla. Every day he follows the same rituals that have been performed there since 1912.

Boarding an external elevator, he climbs to the top of the telescope, about 50 meters above the ground. There he carefully adjusts the mirrors. Then he takes his graphite pencils to sketch the spots on the Sun.

Humans have been doing this for over a thousand years, but only in the last 400 years has there been a greater detail, with the advent of the telescope. But even before the invention of the telescope, humans were fascinated and studied the stars.

Explaining the solar cycle

These sunspots are important for us to understand the Sun's activity. The more spots, the more magnetic disturbances. Magnetic disturbances create the solar winds and coronal mass ejections.

In summary, around the Sun there is the solar corona, which reaches a few million degrees Celsius . This corona is formed by plasma, a highly energetic state of matter.

When these magnetic disturbances occur in sunspots, these charged particles are launched into space. We call this coronal mass ejection.

Therefore, understanding the Sun's behavior is important. This plasma released by the Sun could cause problems for our satellites, electronics on Earth, and astronauts in space. The video below, made by NASA, explains a bit about:

In 2025, the solar maximum will arrive . In that period, the spots are at their peak, and it will hit us with a lot of energy. We humans will not feel anything, however.

Every 11 years the cycle repeats, and our lives remain the same. However, if this plasma is too strong, it could burn electronics and electrical grids all over the Earth. And satellites are even more exposed.

Also, in 2024, NASA plans Artemis. This is the next manned mission to the Moon. Because it is near solar maximum, scientists need to be even more apprehensive because astronauts will not have Earth's magnetic field protecting them.

Trying to get it right, knowing the mistakes

"The most important thing to remember about predictions is that you're going to get it wrong, you're never going to be perfect. It's what you learn from it that allows you to progress in your predictions," explains solar cycle expert Dean Pesnell.

There are also days with no spots. "There are no spots to draw, so I just have a piece of paper with nothing on it," Padilla explains in a NASA press release.

Drawing pictures may seem a little too archaic, but it's much simpler than taking pictures and then processing tons of data. Pictures are not necessary in this case. The GIF below shows an animation with a series of these drawings.

But that doesn't mean the job is easy. The solar minimum, which represents the cycle change, was reached in December 2019. However, only now, in September, were scientists able to confirm it.

Soon, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) intends to launch Space Weather Follow-On L-1 (SWFO-L1), a probe specialized in understanding the "space weather", and should bring us more facilities in this work.

With information from NASA .

Ricky Joseph is a seeker of knowledge. He firmly believes that through understanding the world around us, we can work to better ourselves and our society as a whole. As such, he has made it his life's mission to learn as much as he can about the world and its inhabitants. Joseph has worked in many different fields, all with the aim of furthering his knowledge. He has been a teacher, a soldier, and a businessman - but his true passion lies in research. He currently works as a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company, where he is dedicated to finding new treatments for diseases that have long been considered incurable. Through diligence and hard work, Ricky Joseph has become one of the foremost experts on pharmacology and medicinal chemistry in the world. His name is known by scientists everywhere, and his work continues to improve the lives of millions.