New, Huge Sunspot Triples in Size in 24 Hours

A new, rapidly growing sunspot is slowly rotating towards Earth, and it could become a hotspot for solar activity in the coming days.

On Friday, solar astronomy website Spaceweather.com reported that a sunspot known as AR3068 had just emerged from the southeastern side of the sun and had tripled in size in the space of a day.

The image below, taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows how the dark spot begins to come into view as the sun rotates.

Sunspot AR3068
Sunspot AR3068 seen after rotating into view in this NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) image. Sunspots are sources of solar eruptions. NASA/SDO/HMI

Sunspots are dark areas in the sun's atmosphere that result from the sun's intense magnetic fields. When these magnetic fields are strong enough, they prevent some heat from the core of the sun from reaching its atmosphere, causing patches that are cooler and darker than the surrounding regions.

Due to the intense magnetic fields that birth sunspots, these cool areas can suddenly erupt in a flourish of activity if the magnetic fields suddenly shift. When this happens, solar material is launched into space in the form of a coronal mass ejection, sometimes accompanied by a flash of light and radiation known as a solar flare.

If Earth happens to be in the path of these eruptions, they can interfere with the magnetic field that surrounds our planet and cause problems with power grids, radio communications and satellites.

Such events are known as geomagnetic storms. Mild ones can happen multiple times per month and for most people on the planet they're inconsequential—but they can be strong enough to cause issues in industries such as aviation.

As such, the growing sunspot AR3068 that is rotating into view could be one to watch according to Spaceweather.com, which said the sunspot "merits watching as a possible source of near-future activity."

As of Friday morning, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) had not issued any alerts for impending geomagnetic storms.

The number of sunspots present on the sun differs over a roughly 11-year period known as the solar cycle. Each cycle will have a solar maximum, in which the number of sunspots peaks, and a solar minimum, in which the number of sunspots reaches its lowest point within that cycle.

Currently, the sun is ramping up to the peak of its current solar cycle with a solar maximum expected some time in the summer of 2025, SWPC data shows.

Already, the current solar cycle appears to have a greater number of sunspots than predicted.

The Sun
An image of the sun from NASA's SOHO satellite, dated July, 2002. Solar activity rises and falls over time in what's known as the solar cycle. NASA/Getty