AUSTIN, July 3, 2014 – Solar sunspot Cycle 24 continues to defy the odds, with perhaps the highest secondary-peak above its first peak in the entire 400-year history of sunspot cycles.
For the fourth month in a row, the monthly sunspot number dropped. Yet for the fifth month in a row, a new solar maximum record for the cycle was set! Solar max has inched up to 76.0 above last month’s 75.4 record, still an exceptionally weak maximum.
Also, last month the new Big Bear Solar Observatory made headlines with a video showing the most detailed observations ever recorded during an evolving sunspot.
Solar maximum rises again
Is this latest record it, or are there more records to come?
The surprising answer is that, even if the monthly sunspot number continues declining at its current pace for seven straight months, solar max will continue to rise for the next three months! Under those conditions it will top out between 77 and 78 spots.
How can that be? The unexpected answer lies within this exciting formula:
Rs= (0.5 Rm-6 + Rm-5 + Rm-4 + Rm-3 + Rm-2 + Rm-1 + Rm + Rm+1 + Rm+2 + Rm+3 + Rm+4 + Rm+5 + 0.5 Rm+6 ) / 12
Rs is the 13-month smoothed sunspot number. Rm is the base monthly count and the other Rs are the six months before and after the base month. The months on either end are only given half credit.
Before all you sunspot wonks out there start screaming, “There are better formulas than that one! I read it in the Astrophysical Journal!”, remember — this formula is what the Royal Observatory of Belgium uses, and they are the world’s official record keepers of sunspot counts. Their calculation determines the accepted solar maximum and minimum of sunspot cycles.
If there is a steady decline in the average daily sunspot count of six spots per month for the next several months, then solar maximum will reach a final peak of 77.5 that will get reported three months from now.
However, the sun is anything but steady and reliably predictable. Sunspots could drop off faster, or there could be another sudden burst of activity. One never knows.
Big Bear makes big news
The Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO/NJIT) drew interest at the 224th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) early last month with their video showing fine details within an evolving sunspot.
They’ve discovered changing penumbral structures and light bridges growing over the black abyss at the centers of sunspots. They’ve also been able to see bright speck-like light structures between the convection granules that cover the rest of the sun.
BBSO/NJIT produces high resolution multi-wavelength images by combining their own earth-based data with NASA’s IRIS and SDO spacecraft data to achieve “unprecedented spatial and temporal resolutions.” The earth-based data actually surpasses the best resolution that can be seen from space.
BBSO is tied with the McMath Solar telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory for world’s largest. Both have 1.6 meter main mirrors. McMath was built in the early 1960s, but BBSO is new, completed just a couple years ago.
What sets BBSO apart from other solar observatories is that it is built in the middle of a lake — Big Bear Lake in California, to be specific. Water completely surrounding the observatory reduces surrounding air turbulence which greatly improves image quality. BBSO also has some of the most advanced computer technology available, which makes their images razor sharp.
The sun continues to confound scientists by doing its own thing without regard to our expectations. The size of Cycle 24’s secondary peak, still forming, is completely unexpected. It looks like solar max will continue to rise for several more months, even if monthly sunspot counts continue to fall.
Scientists at Big Bear Solar Observatory provided new insights last month into why sunspots continue to exist when they should be instantly annihilated by a turbulent sun. They released stunning new imagery at last month’s AAS meeting.
Improvements in instrumentation and theories are producing greater insights into the inner workings of our star, but there is still a long way to go before we will be able to accurately forecast the sun’s next moves.