Observing Project 6A Tracking Solar Activity

The activity level of the Sun generates far more than just sunspots. As the Sun becomes more and more active, it affects our lives more and more particularly as we become more and more dependent on technology. Satellites route more and more of our television, phone calls, cellular communications, Internet, air and sea navigation services and information. Long-range communications between airlines and air traffic control can be disrupted. As the Sun grows more and more active,the potential for service disruptions grows. Our dependency on space-based technology has grown to such an extent that it has required the birth of a whole new science, astrometeorology, or literally "space weather." Here is your chance to be the weatherman.

As often as possible, keep an eye on sunspots. As the Sun's activity level increases, watch for sunspots to increase in terms of both quantity and quality. As activity increases sunspots will also begin to appear in groups. They will also become more persistent. The key things to watch for are sunspots that are forming in pairs, or in pairs of groups in close proximity. These are prime places for solar flares to occur or for large prominences to be thrown into space. If one should occur while it is rotating past Earth in space, enormous amounts of high-energy radiation and gas will be thrown at us in what as known as a coronal mass ejection. These create prime conditions for aurora to form and by keeping an eye on the activity of the Sun you may be among the first to know when an aurora is imminent, along with the various negative aspects of strong solar activity. Astronomers now monitor the activity of the Sun very closely because an energetic Sun is a threat to many billions of dollars of commercial and military space-based assets. The low-orbiting space shuttle and International Space Station are not at risk because they operate well beneath the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field but high-orbiting geostationary communications and weather satellites are endangered when coronal mass ejections strike.

Watch sunspots as they form, grow, spawn groups, then shrink and die or rotate out of view. If a large sunspot group rotates out of your view, make sure you note when it disappeared and make a note of what, if anything, appears from around the Sun's opposite limb in about twelve days. If a sunspot is particularly energetic, it may continue to persist during the fortnight's journey behind the far side of the Sun. Remember that even if the Sun is not active, large sunspots can at times appear. In late 2003, despite being deep into a post solar maximum decline, two massive sunspots nearly 100,000 miles across appeared on the Sun and maintained their strength for more than 10 days until rotating out of view. To the surprise of many solar observers, twelve days later the two massive sunspot groups returned and traveled again across the front face of the Sun before disappearing around the far side to die.

If you become an avid solar observer and the weather is bad, or if you're one of those who is just a bit apprehensive about peering at the sun's blinding glare you can follow the Sun on the Internet at the SOHO web site. The Solar and Helios-pheric Observatory images the Sun through eight different filters, including a coro-nagraph (camera which creates an artificial solar eclipse). One camera images in normal visible light and allows viewing of sunspot activity no matter what the weather on Earth. SOHO is positioned in space at what is called a "Lagrangian point" where the gravity of the Sun and Earth balance each other out. The spacecraft slowly circles this point about 1.3 million miles sunward of Earth. From this position, SOHO serves as our sunward sentinel, guarding Earth against the ravages of the Sun. We'll talk more about SOHO a bit later on in this chapter.

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