Sunday, March 28, 2021

Solar Cycle 25 is ramping up - slowly


It has been just over one year since I posted my last solar blog. As an individual who enjoys observing and imaging our Sun, going through the period known as solar minimum was not enjoyable. The Sun was virtually void of sunspots, prominences, filaments, and plages for a very long time. To review, a solar cycle is approximately an 11-year period that is measured by the number of sunspots visible on its surface. During this time the Sun becomes evermore magnetically active creating all kinds of very interesting visible features when observed using various type of solar filters. At its peak the cycle is known as solar maximum. During the cycle there is a reverse in the magnetic fields and the activity diminishes to what is known as solar minimum. And the cycles repeat themselves at varying levels of activity.

The chart below (courtesy of Hathaway NASA/ARC) shows that Solar Cycle 24 was relatively calm as compared to the two cycles preceding it. ( keeps a running total number of days that are "spotless".

Spotless Days
Current Stretch: 0 days (as of 3/27/2021)
2021 total: 32 days (37%)
2020 total: 208 days (57%)
2019 total: 281 days (77%)
2018 total: 221 days (61%)
2017 total: 104 days (28%)
2016 total: 32 days (9%)
2015 total: 0 days (0%)

December 2019 marked the official beginning of Solar Cycle 25. As an observer, you really could not tell that much had changed from solar minimum at the end of Solar Cycle 24. But as 2020 marched on, there were moments of excitement where sunspot groups as well as other features appeared.

November 8, 2020

November 26, 2020

Keep in mind, although sunspots may be visible on any given, my observing and imaging is often blocked by clouds and pay-job working hours. Relative to these conditions, combined with some incredibly cold weather, there was not much solar observing going on in my life for the early part of 2021. Along comes March with some milder weather and clear skies on the weekend, and solar observing on my deck in the backyard is resumed. Although sunspot activity has been minimal, there have been other activities such as prominences, filaments and plages. One thing I really like to look at is the magnetic activity around a sunspot and a plage. It is clearly visible when observing in Hydrogen-alpha (Hα - 656.28nm) as was done in all of these pictures. You can see this by observing of the shapes the plasma takes on around those features. It is much like the experiments we did in school with a magnet and metal filings. 

March 7, 2021

March 13, 2021

March 20, 2021

March 21, 2021

March 27, 2021

Will Solar Cycle 25 be another mild activity cycle. That had been the prediction and discussion for much of the end of Solar Cycle 24. However, EarthSky ( ran a story on December 26, 2020 suggesting that Solar Cycle 25 "could be among the strongest on record". Not so good for those responsible for keeping our communications systems, power grids, and satellites safe and working properly. However, for a solar observer and imager, it would be liking striking solar gold.

Until next time.... Clear Skies!

Phil Whitebloom is currently the President of Howard Astronomical League (HAL) and continues in his role as Solar Observing chairperson.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Are we really coming out of this long quiet period of solar activity?

Important: Never look directly at the Sun without using filters that are specifically designed to protect your eyes from the solar energy.

For those of us who enjoy observing our Sun, it has been a long and frustrating period of "solar minimum". Approximately every 11 years the Sun goes through what is called a "solar cycle". A solar cycle is defined by the period between flips of the Sun's magnetic field. Yes, what is north at the beginning of the solar cycle will be south at the beginning of the next cycle. During a solar cycle the amount of "solar activity" changes. One key measurement of activity is the number of sunspots that occur throughout the cycle. Solar minimum is a period of time when sunspots and other solar activities occur very infrequently. Activity is at its lowest at the beginning of the solar cycle. Solar maximum is when activity is at its greatest and peaks in the middle of the solar cycle. And then the decline begins again. We are coming to the end of Solar Cycle 24. The activity decline of this cycle began in 2015.  And  there has been a steep decline in solar activity and an extraordinarily low number of sunspots over the past two years.  If forecasts our accurate, Solar Cycle 25 will begin sometime between April and July of this year. And from that point solar activity should begin to increase and reach solar maximum in 2025. See the charts below.

Solar Cycle 25 Forecast
Solar Cycle 25 Forecast Update
published: Monday, December 09, 2019 22:30 UTC
The NOAA/NASA co-chaired, international panel to forecast Solar Cycle 25 released their latest forecast for Solar Cycle 25. The forecast consensus: a peak in July, 2025 (+/- 8 months), with a smoothed sunspot number (SSN) of 115. The panel agreed that Cycle 25 will be average in intensity and similar to Cycle 24.
Additionally, the panel concurred that solar minimum between Cycles 24 and 25 will occur in April, 2020 (+/- 6 months). If the solar minimum prediction is correct, this would make Solar Cycle 24 the 7th longest on record (11.4 years).
Below are some pictures I took during the last solar maximum. The larger images were taken with a 5" refractor using a white-light filter imaging the Sun's photosphere. The smaller Sun on the top picture was taken with a 60mm Hydrogen-Alpha telescope imaging the Sun's chromosphere. As you can see there is quite a bit of activity in these pictures.

I have taken very few solar pictures in the past couple of years. The sun appeared as barren as desert for long periods of time. Every now and then a nice surprise happens like at the Winter Star Party this February. No sunspots, however there was a very nice prominence activity (relatively speaking).

Let's keep our fingers crossed that Solar Cycle will begin as predicted and increased solar activity follow.

Clear Skies!


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Parker Solar Probe brings Solar Excitement to Solar Minimum

Measured by activity, our Sun has been virtually asleep in 2018. Scientists generally measure Solar activity by the number of sunspots observed over a given time period. The chart below was created by NOAA. It shows the number of sunspots observed annually from January 2000 through July 31, 2018. The graph has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised 2015 predictions. As you can see Sunspot counts are even below the most pessimistic predictions. 

For all of us hydrogen-alpha Solar observers here on earth there are other features that we like to look at such as prominences, filaments, flares, and spicules. These features/events also have been almost completely absent this year.

As many of you know, the Sun has activity cycles that are approximately 11 years in duration. Peak activity is known as solar maximum and the lowest activity is known as solar minimum The last solar minimum was in 2009. This solar minimum is 2 years ahead of schedule. I am taking the liberty of calling it minimum because it can't really get much less active than it has been this year. Now the question is how long will this period last? From an amateur observers point of view, hopefully not too long.

Although this unusual cycle is "news worthy" and a bit mysterious in itself. It is not exciting. What is exciting is the successful NASA's launch of the Parker Solar Probe (PSB) on August 12th of this year. It is the first mission where we will actually "touch" the Sun. The PSB will travel within 4 million miles of the Sun. It will travel right into the Sun's corona. It's hot in the corona. Even if you visit at night. The PSB is going to have to withstand temperatures that will reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit as well as surviving exposure to extreme radiation. It will observe the solar wind  and several other dramatic events. The PSB has many very interesting mission objectives. Visit this NASA site for all the details:

The PSB is currently traveling at 45,860 mph and on September 6th was 16.27 million miles from earth. It is amazing!

I believe even the Sun has taken notice. On August 26th it awoke from it's sleepy state and opened an eye to see what we are doing. This is evidenced by some unusual activity.

In the picture above, you can see some nice prominences around the edge and a large filament on the surface. There were even two very small sunspots that are not easy too spot in this H-alpha picture captured with a 60mm telescope. Let's see if the Sun will open up both eyes as it watches the Parker Space Probe speeding directly at it.

Will Solar Minimum come to a screeching halt?
Will sunspots, prominences, filaments, flares, and spicules show themselves with increasing regularity as the anxiety inside the Sun grows as it wonders "what have the humans sent my way"?

Time will tell.
Cloudless skies will help me to keep you informed.

Stay tuned to this Solar Observer Blog!

Monday, January 8, 2018

A very cool new tool to assist in observing our Sun (It became a testimonial)

January 5th, 2018 - It was so cold outside. How cold was it? It was so cold, my Ha solar telescope would not "tune" to the bandwidth needed to bring out the features of the Sun. You could see the Sun, but no prominences, filaments, plages, or spicule's. You may ask "how could that be"? That's because my Lunt 60mm pressure tuned Ha telescope uses air spaced etalons. When it get's too cold the air density changes enough that it prevents the scope from getting "on band".  To overcome this problem, I would need to invest in a heat controlled solar filter from DayStar. To dig deeper in the science behind all of that may be a topic for a future blog. 
So what was I doing out there anyway? I was testing a new product by Orion. It is lightweight (6 pounds) solar mount. The mount uses a combination of GPS and a video camera sensor to find the Sun and track it accurately. Click on the following link and watch it work: Orion Solar Starseeker Tracking AZ Mount
You probably are now asking; "Phil, you have been doing this a long time. Why do you need an automated device to find the Sun"? The answer is, I don't, I am pretty good a getting the Sun into the eyepiece. However, there are  three very compelling benefits:
  1. It is difficult to polar align a mount and solar scope during the day time. Not being perfectly polar aligned causes the Sun to drift out of view over a period of time (from seconds to minutes) depending on how accurate the alignment. For simply viewing, close is good enough. Making some minor adjustments while viewing is no big deal. This is true if it is just me doing the viewing. However, during public solar observing outreach events like HAL does regularly at Robinson Nature Center in Columbia Maryland, I find myself continually having to jump in to see that the scope has drifted and the Sun is no longer in the "sweet spot" or may have moved out of view altogether. This helps to explain why the folks sometimes are underwhelmed by what they are not seeing. Time to jump in and get the Sun back in center of the eyepiece. This new mount uses the built in camera sensor to keep the Sun centered with absolutely no polar alignment necessary.
  2. Continuing on with the "drifting" issue... Solar imaging is also a challenge while the Sun is drifting. If the intent is to "stack" or combine pictures to bring maximum detail, having the Sun in the same spot in the frame is a big plus (or at least close). When the Sun is drifting as multiple pictures are being captured, it becomes very difficult for the post processing tools to match pixels. When attempting to bring out very faint and fine details like prominence structure, the quality can be significantly reduced or maybe missed altogether in the final product. Once again, the built in camera sensor tracking the Sun and keeping the image centered is fantastic.
  3. In 2013 I made the decision to invest in a Lunt 60mm Ha solar telescope because I wanted very high quality and maximum portability. The telescope's relatively small format allows me to carry it, eyepieces, and various accessories in a customized backpack. The tracking mount I currently use does not travel in a very portable fashion. It includes a tripod, a German equatorial head, a counter weight shaft, counter weights, a 6 volt external battery pack, a hand controller, and cables. It is lightweight for what it is, but not practical to travel with on an airplane or pack into a vehicle for a family vacation when the trunk is packed with luggage. When I do travel out of town with the solar scope, I travel with a simple tripod and mounting head. No tracking and no imaging (other than a quick snap shot maybe). It is simple and portable. But not the same experience as when using a tracking mount. 

The Orion Starseeker setup is so compact and efficient, I am able to pack the entire system along with the Solar Scope and accessories in the backpack. The light weight tripod straps to the outside of the backpack.

This is possible because the mount is completely self contained. There are no counter weights, no cables, and no exterior battery pack. The system runs on eight AA batteries which are contained right in the mounting head. It's amazing. The entire backpack weighs just 25 pounds and I have an entire Solar viewing system enclosed. I even have the ability to pack the camera inside the backpack and the lightweight laptop computer in the front pouch which will allow me to have a full solar imaging system in the backpack and ready to travel. This will bring the weight to approximately 30 pounds. Still not too bad.

Yes, I not only tested the Orion Mount in the parking lot of Company Seven Astro Optics on a blustery 14 degree day with wind chill into the single digits, I purchased it. The system sells for around $350, which is also a very good value for the benefits it provides.

Time will tell how it hold us under regular usage. It is specified to hold a telescope and accessories up to 7 pounds. My solar telescope with an eyepiece and in the "double-stack" configuration weighs in at 10 pounds". I am hoping that they spec'd the system conservatively and the gears will hold up. Check back at this time next year and let's see how it is doing. Also, the setup is so lightweight that it is easy to bump or move it out of place while adjusting the scopes pressure tuner. (The tuner was also a little stiffer than normal because it was freezing cold outside). It was just as easy to move it back into place without a problem. If I want greater stability I can take the head assembly off of the very lightweight aluminum tripod that it comes with and put it right on to my much more substantive carbon fiber tripod. Portability will not be sacrificed. It will just add a little more weight.

I am very excited to run this new setup through its paces. I am also looking forward for the temperature to return to a point where the telescope will "tune" properly and I don't have to be wearing a full winter get-up to look at and image the hottest object in our solar system.

Clear Skies!


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Solar Mystery Solved

Note: The pictures shown below were imaged at a different orientation. This accounts for the features to appear at different locations on the Solar disc.

On September 9th, 2017 I captured several images of the Sun which showed a very interesting feature. Above, on the top image if you look down just inside the 5:00 position you will see a circular feature. The image just below shows a closer look. Inside that apparent circle was a very active area including two active regions (AR 2674 and AR 2679). Sunspots and plages are clearly visible. Plage is a French word meaning "beaches". It always appears around a sunspot or an "active region" as a bright dense area in the chromosphere. You can also see the effects of the magnetic fields on the chromosphere in that area.

There were many opinions as to what this circular feature could have been. With the help of HAL member and retired NASA engineer Bub Dutilly, I was connected with Dr. Joe Gurman at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  Joe did a considerable amount of research reviewing many images of the Sun as well as data that was gathered from the Solar happenings on September 29th. Using data and images from Big Bear Solar Observatory in San Bernadino County, California. Dr. Gurman was looking for like information to compare against. He also used data recorded at SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory at NASA Goddard).  One of the theories is that this could have been a "Moerton Wave" (A wave-like disturbance in the chromosphere initiated by a solar flare). The following video recorded at SDO was viewed to see if it indeed was a "Moerton Wave". (The area we are observing is just inside the edge at the 3:00 position).  As a result of that research we were able to eliminate a "Moerton Wave" as a possibility. Dr. Gurman concluded; "I believe it is a filament channel in the form of (more or less) a circle. They happnen."

For additional opinions Dr. Gurman referred me to two other NASA researchers at Goddard, Dr. Holly Gilbert and Dr. Therese Kucera.

Dr. Gilbert observed that the circle is not really a circle. She said; "It might be "two filaments (one very curved on the right, and the other on the left slightly curved). Although they looked connected, I don't think they are".

Dr. Kucera compared my images to those on the NSO GONG site (National Solar Observatory - Global Oscillation Network Group). Dr. Kucera said; I think what we are looking at is a curved shape in the fibrils, thin dark threads on the chromosphere that can trace the magnetic field direction." Immediately below is the image from the NSO GONG site. The area we are talking about is shown just inside the edge at the 3:00 position.

In closer review of the "circular feature" it is apparent that it is not a circle at all. It is the conclusion of the experts that I imaged filaments (probably 2) in such a way that they formed almost a circle. In all of the September 29, 2017 Hydrogen-alpha solar images I have been able to find, it appears that I have the only pictures that show such a clearly defined filament structure.

(Filaments are masses of relatively cool and dense material suspended above the photosphere in the low corona by magnetic fields, generally along a magnetic inversion, or neutral, line separating regions of opposite magnetic polarity in the underlying photosphere. They appear as dark, elongated features.)

Thanks very much for all of the time and expertise that Dr.'s Gurman, Gilbert, and Kucera of NASA Goddard dedicated to this research.

Clear Skies!


Note: Definitions source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Sun

Sunday, October 29, 2017

It's been 4.6 billion years in the making. And we have about 5 billion more years to enjoy it!

Our Sun was born about 4.6 billion years ago, give or take a day. With just about 5 billion years (give or take a day) until our Sun burns up it's fuel, expands, and engulfs the Earth, we have that much quality time to observe it, study it, and be amazed by it.

I have been honored by the Howard Astronomy League (HAL) by being asked to serve as the club's Solar Observing Chairperson. As part of this role, I will be posting a least one blog a month with what I hope will be interesting information relative to Solar observing, imaging, and information. I will also be encouraging those of you who are interested in learning more about our Sun and who already enjoy observing it to participate in get together's and and related solar events. I also encourage you to post your interesting Solar observations on this blog.

When observing the Sun, safety is always the first step. Ensure that you are always and only using telescopes, binoculars, and glasses that are properly filtered to protect you from damaging your eyes or even causing blindness. In a future blog, I will write about Solar safety.

With the light from the Sun arriving here on Earth in just under 8 and half minutes, combined with its ever changing features, every observing event becomes a unique experience. You can go from one day seeing just a big ball in the sky to another day of tremendous activities featuring sunspots, prominence's, filaments, spicule's, plage's, planetary transits, solar flares, and even unexplained happenings. See my next blog on an imaged Solar mystery.

Solar observing can be done anywhere you have a clear view of the sky . I have observed in my backyard, in parking lots, in different States, on the beach, at public events (for all to share), and in the mountains. Technology has reached the point where regardless of the size of your budget, you can safely observe, image, and enjoy the Sun. Because it is best to observe our Sun during the daytime, you don't have to stay up late at night or maybe all night to do your astronomy.

Observing the Sun is fun for all ages.

Until next time....

Clear Skies!

Phil Whitebloom
Howard Astronomy League
Solar Observing Chairperson