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Tracking the Sun’s Cycles

Tracking the Sun’s Cycles

Scientists just announced that our Sun is in a new cycle.

Solar activity has been relatively low over the past few years, and now that scientists have confirmed solar minimum was in December 2019, a new solar cycle is underway — meaning that we expect to see solar activity start to ramp up over the next several years.


The Sun goes through natural cycles, in which the star swings from relatively calm to stormy. At its most active — called solar maximum — the Sun is freckled with sunspots, and its magnetic poles reverse. At solar maximum, the Sun’s magnetic field, which drives solar activity, is taut and tangled. During solar minimum, sunspots are few and far between, and the Sun’s magnetic field is ordered and relaxed.


Understanding the Sun’s behavior is an important part of life in our solar system. The Sun’s violent outbursts can disturb the satellites and communications signals traveling around Earth, or one day, Artemis astronauts exploring distant worlds. Scientists study the solar cycle so we can better predict solar activity.


Measuring the solar cycle

Surveying sunspots is the most basic of ways we study how solar activity rises and falls over time, and it’s the basis of many efforts to track the solar cycle. Around the world, observers conduct daily sunspot censuses. They draw the Sun at the same time each day, using the same tools for consistency. Together, their observations make up the international sunspot number, a complex task run by the World Data Center for the Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations, at the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, which tracks sunspots and pinpoints the highs and lows of the solar cycle. Some 80 stations around the world contribute their data.


Credit: USET data/image, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels

Other indicators besides sunspots can signal when the Sun is reaching its low. In previous cycles, scientists have noticed the strength of the Sun’s magnetic field near the poles at solar minimum hints at the intensity of the next maximum. When the poles are weak, the next peak is weak, and vice versa.

Another signal comes from outside the solar system. Cosmic rays are high-energy particle fragments, the rubble from exploded stars in distant galaxies that shoot into our solar system with astounding energy. During solar maximum, the Sun’s strong magnetic field envelops our solar system in a magnetic cocoon that is difficult for cosmic rays to infiltrate. In off-peak years, the number of cosmic rays in the solar system climbs as more and more make it past the quiet Sun. By tracking cosmic rays both in space and on the ground, scientists have yet another measure of the Sun’s cycle.


Since 1989, an international panel of experts—sponsored by NASA and NOAA—meets each decade to make their prediction for the next solar cycle. The prediction includes the sunspot number, a measure of how strong a cycle will be, and the cycle’s expected start and peak. This new solar cycle is forecast to be about the same strength as the solar cycle that just ended — both fairly weak. The new solar cycle is expected to peak in July 2025.

Learn more about the Sun’s cycle and how it affects our solar system at

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