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Solar Astronomy & Solar Physics

Our Sun began a new active phase with completion of solar minimum on January 4, 2008, signaled by the appearance of a reverse-polarity sunspot, thus initiating Solar Cycle 24. It is a well-documented fact that solar activity is not constant, but varies in a more-or-less predictable 11-year average cycle. As we approach solar maximum, recent observations suggest that the next solar cycle may be somewhat less predictable than most.

Solar astronomy and solar physics, two branches of science which observe and study the Sun and attempt to explain and predict its behavior, can claim ownership of the largest array of Earth- and space-based instruments ever assembled to observe the solar sphere. This instrumentation has provided us with unprecedented images and measurements of solar activity associated with the most recent solar maximum (of Cycle 23) — as measured by sunspot activity — that occurred in April 2000.

While sunspot activity prior to the minimum had been waning for several years, geomagnetic activity on Earth peaked in October 2003 (as measured by the planetary A-index, or PAI). This geomagnetic maximum is generally characterized by increasing magnitude and frequency of solar coronal mass ejections. Even at solar minimum, the Sun continues to be a powerful and unpredictable giant, occasionally surprising astronomers and other sun watchers with sudden, violent bursts of activity. Our Sun is never quiet.

Most of us do not care about Sol and its moods — but we should. Collision of a coronal mass ejection (CME) with Earth’s magnetosphere can induce a geomagnetic storm — a widespread disturbance of the our planet’s magnetic field. While solar flares can disrupt radio reception because they disturb the ionosphere, large coronal mass ejections, by virtue of their ability to cause severe geomagnetic fluctuations, can damage electric power grid equipment and are known to have caused major electric power grid failures. Furthermore, both flares and coronal mass ejections can damage satellites and place the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts at extreme risk.

The Sun, when looked upon not as the bright, featureless disk presented to the naked eye* (See warning below.), but as a massive, churning dynamo at once both driven and constrained by phenomenal interplay of battling nuclear, gravitational and electromagnetic forces, becomes an object of intense fascination. It is no wonder that thousands of people travel worldwide just to view a scant few minutes of a total solar eclipse. With the resources available here, you can view and learn about our Sun through the eyes and instruments of the men and women engaged in the exciting fields of solar astronomy and solar physics.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 16 December 2003, updated 1 July 2011.

Follow links to the right to learn more about solar astronomy and solar physics, solar events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) that can affect the Earth and its magnetosphere, and measurement, causes, effects and prediction of these events. Related Links at the left margin display additional topics of interest pertaining to astrophysics, space and spaceflight. View the Space & Spaceflight SiteMap for a complete list of all our space, spaceflight, astronomy and astrophysics topics and the Technology & Science SiteMap for our collection of technology and science-related topics.

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* NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN without proper eye protection used in the prescribed manner. Looking directly into the Sun can damage the retina of the eye. This damage, even with modern surgical techniques, cannot be repaired. Permanent blindness can be the result of prolonged exposure. Warning — Looking at the Sun is dangerous! is a reference that can help you learn what are considered to be safe and unsafe solar viewing techniques.

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