Science

As the most active regions of the Sun turn toward the Earth, the likelihood of strong solar activity increases.

Solar activity will remain high in the coming weeks as two large active regions of the Sun turn to face Earth.

Regions designated NOAA 13169 and NOAA 13170 will return after passing around the back of the Sun over the next few days, with huge active regions appearing at the Sun’s eastern edge.

The active region of the Sun is the place where the star’s magnetic fields are perturbed. They are associated with explosive solar storms such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These active regions increase as the Sun approaches solar maximum, the period of peak activity in the solar cycle, and are indicated by dark sunspots.

Related: Previously hidden sunspot unleashes colossal X-class solar flare as it turns to face Earth

According to a statement from the National Solar Observatory (NSO), measurements from the Sun indicate an increased potential for strong solar events such as solar flares and CMEs during this reappearance. While this space weather can interact with Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds our planet, creating beautiful light shows called auroras at high latitudes, it can also have far less desirable effects.

Extreme space weather can disrupt space technology, power and communications systems, including GPS navigation and aircraft over the North Pole.

Scientists are aware of the Sun’s active regions, even when they are invisible or close to the far side of the Sun, thanks to an acoustic technique called helioseismic holography. Because the sun “rings like a bell” as sound waves propagate through it, researchers can use acoustics to determine what’s going on at different depths of the star.

NOAA 13169 and NOAA 13170, active regions of the Sun that will appear on the eastern limb of the Sun in late January 2023. (Image credit: NSO/AURA/NSF)

Scientists at the NSO Global Oscillation Network Group are using this method to look for changes in the intensity and frequency of these acoustic waves passing through the Sun to study otherwise invisible regions of strong magnetic fields.

When sound waves are reflected inside the Sun and reflected back and forth, they are encoded with information about invisible areas. This information can then be fed back to researchers, who can then build maps of the far side of the Sun and effectively “see” highly active regions on the opposite side of the star. This information could alert scientists to active regions that are about to move to the near side of the Sun and thus bring severe space weather.

There are currently three large active regions of the Sun, which are located in the southern hemisphere of the star and face the Earth. These regions have generated some powerful solar flares over the past few days, but they will soon be orbiting the Sun’s western edge to pass around the back of the star.

The sun is currently in its fourth year of its current solar cycle, which began in December 2019, when the star’s surface had its lowest number of sunspots, known as solar minimum, at around 1.8. The solar cycle describes the changes a star’s magnetic field undergoes over 11 years, and scientists track it by recording sunspot activity.

So far, Solar Cycle 25 has been more active than the relatively quiet Solar Cycle 24. Since December 2019, solar activity, including the number of sunspots and solar flares, has increased. The Sun is approaching the next solar maximum in 2024, when the star’s polarity will change and many other active regions will appear.

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