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 Scientists Gaze Inside Sun, Predict the Next Solar Cycle

For thousands of years, storms from the sun raged around Earth almost without our notice. Ghostly displays of light in the skies over the polar regions were the only evidence of their passing. However, with the arrival of modern technology, they have a much larger impact.

Solar storms can disrupt satellite orbits and electronics, interfere with radio communication, and damage power systems. Solar storms begin with tangled magnetic fields generated by the sun’s churning electrically charged gas (plasma). Like a rubber band that has been twisted too far, solar magnetic fields can suddenly snap to a new shape, releasing tremendous energy as a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Coronal Mass Ejection
Animation left: Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are violent discharges of electrically charged gas from the sun’s corona. The largest explosions in the solar system, CMEs launch up to 10 billion tons of ionized gas into space at speeds of one to two million miles an hour. (2.2 Mb - no audio). Credit: NASA. Click on image to view animation.

The sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle of activity, from stormy to quiet and back again. If we were able to predict the sun’s cycles accurately years in advance, we could help societies plan for active bouts of solar storms and lessen their disruptions.

Solar Cycle
Animation right: The sun’s seasonal cycle is 11 years and is marked by disturbances to Earth known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and an increase in sunspots from a maximum of 200 to a minimum of a few dozen per month. SOHO observations show the dramatic changes from solar minimum in 1996 (left) to maximum in 2000 (right). (7.5 Mb - no audio). Credit: NASA/ESA. Click on image to view animation.

Now, a team of scientists have done just that. They made the first "solar climate" forecast using a combination of groundbreaking observations of the solar interior from space and computer simulation. NASA's Living With a Star program and the National Science Foundation funded the research.

The next solar activity cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the previous one, and up to a year late in arriving, according to a breakthrough forecast by Dr. Mausumi Dikpati and colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

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