Sun Produces Biggest Flare in Over Two Years During Unusually Quiet Solar Minimum, NASA Says It May Be Waking Up

The sun has produced its biggest solar flare since October 2017, potentially suggesting it is emerging from the solar minimum. The activity comes as scientists record an unusually low number of sunspots. So far, 2020 has had one of the lowest sunspot rates since the start of the Space Age.

Sunspots are areas on the surface of the sun that are cooler than other parts, appearing as dark patches as a result. They form in areas where magnetic fields are particularly strong. They are associated with solar flares—sudden explosions caused by changes to these magnetic fields.

Activity on the surface of the sun appears to increase and decrease on an 11 year cycle. When activity is highest, more sunspots appear—a period known as the solar maximum. The solar minimum is when activity is lowest and fewer sunspots appear, and we are currently in this stage of the cycle. According to SpaceWeather.com, so far 2020 has been free of sunspots for 79 percent of the time. For 2019, this figure was 77 percent.

The last solar maximum peaked in 2014, during which there was just one day where no sunspots appeared on the surface. 2012, 2013 and 2015 had no sunspot-free days at all.

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On May 29, NASA said a family of sunspots appeared on the surface of the sun. While they were not yet visible, the space agency recorded flares coming from them. "At 3:24 a.m. EST, a relatively small M-class solar flare blazed from these sunspots," NASA said in a statement.

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Image of the sun on May 29 from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The solar flare can be seen on the upper left side of the image. NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory/Joy Ng

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These flares were not strong enough to be registered by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, which produces space weather reports. However, the space agency said that because of the lack of activity on the sun in recent months, the flares were still significant. "The sunspots may well be harbingers of the Sun's solar cycle ramping up and becoming more active," the NASA statement said. "Or, they may not. It will be a few more months before we know for sure."

If solar activity starts increasing, it could mean the solar minimum is over and the sun is entering it's next 11 year cycle. At present, the NOAA is predicting the next solar maximum to take place between 2023 and 2026.

NASA said it will take at least six months of observations before we know the new cycle has started. The solar minimum is defined by having the lowest number of sunspots in a cycle, so there needs to be a consistent increase before the base can be determined. On the latest flare, it said: "It was the first M-class flare since October 2017—and scientists will be watching to see if the Sun is indeed beginning to wake up."

SpaceWeather.com said the sunspots the flares came from have still not appeared. At time of writing, there had been 30 consecutive days with no sunspots. "A new-cycle sunspot that unleashed a flurry of solar flares on May 29 has disintegrated—so quickly that it didn't even have time to be officially numbered," it said. "Solar Minimum is back. But the episode shows that it might not last much longer."

Sun Produces Biggest Flare in Over Two Years During Unusually Quiet Solar Minimum, NASA Says It May Be Waking Up | Tech & Science