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!