SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) -
The words “space weather” may conjure up images of intergalactic tornadoes and star-filled blizzards, but it actually refers to the electrically charged particles and radiation from the sun.
Every 11 years, the sun completes a solar cycle of calm and stormy activity and then begins a new one. The new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in December 2019, according to an announcement by the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel of international experts on Tuesday. It can take as long as 10 months to calculate when the new cycle starts, since the sun is so variable, which is why it was announced Tuesday.
Solar Cycle 24 was the fourth smallest cycle on record and the weakest cycle in 100 years, said Lisa Upton, co-chair of Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel and solar physicist at the Space Systems Research Corporation, during a press conference Tuesday.
While Solar Cycle 24 was below average, it wasn’t without risk. An epic storm erupted from the sun in July 2012, but missed colliding with Earth.
Although the panel got the timing of the maximum wrong during the last cycle, they have improved their methods of prediction. They found that monitoring the magnetic fields in the polar regions of sun has consistently provided the best forecast.
In addition to protecting the technology we depend on, space weather predictions will grow increasingly important for astronauts in space.
The NASA Artemis program seeks plans to send humans out of low-Earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides, and back to the moon and on to Mars in the future.
It’s important to understand the solar cycle because space weather caused by the sun -- eruptions like solar flares and coronal mass ejection events -- can impact the power grid, satellites, GPS, airlines, rockets and astronauts in space.