If you happen to own a communications satellite -- or use practically any electronic device known to humankind -- then a NASA researcher has a heartening prediction for you: the Sun will be unusually quiet over the next decade.
The Sun goes through a magnetic cycle that lasts an average of about 11 years. At the cycle's peak, the surface of the Sun is blanketed by the dark magnetic storms known as sunspots. These storms also generate outbursts of energy and particles. When the outbursts reach Earth, they can fry orbiting satellites, knock out power grids, and cause many other problems.
But David Hathaway of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center says the peak in the current cycle, which began a couple of years ago, should be pretty calm. He expects it to peak in 2013, but it should be just half as intense as the last cycle, which itself was below average.
Sun-watching telescopes on the ground and in space have given astronomers a lot of new tools for predicting the Sun's behavior. The telescopes reveal how hot gas flows at the Sun's surface and deep below the surface, and show how the Sun's X-rays rise and fall. All of these factors are pointing to a quiet peak in the current cycle.
They also suggest that the cycle could be longer than average. The last one stretched for more than 12 years. And Hathaway and others say this one also could last for more than 12 years -- producing a long period of calm in the solar system.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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