'Something unexpected' is happening on the Sun, Nasa has warned.
This year was supposed to be the year of 'solar maximum,' the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle.
But solar activity is relatively low.
'Sunspot numbers are well below their values from 2011, and strong solar flares have been infrequent,' the space agency says.
It observed just a few small sunspots on an otherwise clean face, which is usually riddled with many spots during peak solar activity.
Experts have been baffled by the apparent lack of activity - with many wondering if NASA simply got it wrong.
However, Solar physicist Dean Pesnell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center believes he has a different explanation.
'This is solar maximum,' he says.
'But it looks different from what we expected because it is double-peaked.'
'The last two solar maxima, around 1989 and 2001, had not one but two peaks.'
Solar activity went up, dipped, then rose again, performing a mini-cycle that lasted about two years, he said.
The same thing could be happening now, as sunspot counts jumped in 2011 and dipped in 2012, he believes.
Pesnell expects them to rebound in 2013: 'I am comfortable in saying that another peak will happen in 2013 and possibly last into 2014.'
He spotted a similarity between Solar Cycle 24 and Solar Cycle 14, which had a double-peak during the first decade of the 20th century.
If the two cycles are twins, 'it would mean one peak in late 2013 and another in 2015'. - Daily Mail
The Solar Cycle
Conventional wisdom holds that solar activity swings back and forth like a simple pendulum.
At one end of the cycle, there is a quiet time with few sunspots and flares.
At the other end, solar max brings high sunspot numbers and frequent solar storms.
It’s a regular rhythm that repeats every 11 years.
Reality is more complicated.
Astronomers have been counting sunspots for centuries, and they have seen that the solar cycle is not perfectly regular.
Monster Sunspot Growing Fast, Solar Storms Possible
A colossal sunspot on the surface of the sun is large enough to swallow six Earths whole, and could trigger solar flares this week, NASA scientists say.
The giant sunspot was captured on camera by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory as it swelled to enormous proportions over the 48 hours spanning Tuesday and Wednesday (Feb. 19 and 20). SDO is one of several spacecraft that constantly monitor the sun's space weather environment.
"It has grown to over six Earth diameters across, but its full extent is hard to judge since the spot lies on a sphere, not a flat disk," wrote NASA spokeswoman Karen Fox, of the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in an image description.
The sunspot region is actually a collection of dark blemishes on the surface of the sun that evolved rapidly over the last two days. Sunspots form from shifting magnetic fields at the sun's surface, and are actually cooler than their surrounding solar material.
According to Fox, some of the intense magnetic fields in the sunspot region are pointing in opposite directions, making it ripe for solar activity.
"This is a fairly unstable configuration that scientists know can lead to eruptions of radiation on the sun called solar flares," Fox explained.
The sun is currently in the midst of an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle and is expected to reach peak activity sometime this year. The current sun weather cycle is known as Solar Cycle 24.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory launched in 2010 and is just one of a fleet of spacecraft keeping close watch on the sun for signs of solar flares, eruptions and other space weather events. - Space
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