The sun is due for an awakening that would create extreme space weather that could have catastrophic effects– and experts may have a way to predict the event.
Using 200 years of observations, scientists designed a new sun clock that can better calculate the switch on and off times.
The technology uses the daily sunspot number record available since 1818 to map solar activity over 18 solar cycles to a standardized and 11-year cycle.
Predicting when solar activity is set to increase could potentially protect astronauts in orbit, as well as preventing technologies like satellites from being destroyed.
Extreme space weather, or solar storms, occur when the sun shoots out boiling-hot plasma in the form of solar flares and winds.
Although the most solar storms are usually harmless, a large enough one hitting Earth could have catastrophic effects.
The event can spark magnetic storms in Earth’s upper atmosphere that threaten computers, power grids and aviation technology, along with humans and satellites in space.
However, scientists with the University of Warwick have developed a sun clock to predict these extreme space events.
Lead author Professor Sandra Chapman said: ‘Large events can happen at any time, but are much more likely around solar maximum. By cleanly ordering the observations we find that in 150 years of geomagnetic activity at earth, only a few percent occur during these quiet conditions.’
‘The ability to estimate the risk of a future solar superstorm occurring is vital for space and ground-based technologies that are particularly sensitive to space weather, such as satellites, communications system, power distribution and aviation.
‘If you have a system sensitive to space weather you need to know how likely a big event is, and it is useful to know when we are in a quiet period as it allows maintenance and other activities that make systems temporarily more fragile.’
The team used sunspot observations over the past 200 years and mapped the sun’s activity over 18 solar cycles to a standardized 11 year cycle – the sun starts a new solar cycle ever 11 years.
Halfway through the cycle, solar activity increases that produces more flareups and radiation – all of which can be measured by sunspots.
Sunspots are dark, cooler areas on the sun’s surface and are more prominent halfway through the 11-year cycle.