Is it possible? Could it be true? The sun's drought of sunspots is coming to a close?
Are we finally starting to see "activity?" Recent indications from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite (sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov) seems to be indicating that's the case. Maybe.
Keep in mind folks, the sun usually has something "happening." It is, after all, the largest nuclear fusion reactor we have anywhere near us. Nature's way of lighting up the cosmos. Seething, searing and lately...well...boring!
For those of us who know how, looking at the sun (safely, but more on that later) can be an exciting affair. Sunspots that would dwarf the planet Jupiter, giant filaments of superhot gas extending high off the planet, giant planet-sized "bubbles" of hot plasma boiling to its surface.
Over the last couple of years, though, the sun has been anything but!
It works like this. The sun is essentially just very hot gas. Deep in its core, atoms of hydrogen are squished together to form helium and energy. As the energy of this process makes its long, million-year way out from the center of the sun, it causes the layers of gas above to bubble and boil and generate electrical fields. Like a bar magnet, these fields have a "north" and "south" orientation that generally flips once every 11 years or so. When it does...weird things happen. We see "black spots."
Sunspots aren't really "black" of course. In white light, they're incandescent as the rest of the sun. In a properly filtered view, that means they look "black" compared to the rest of the sun.
In 2002, we experienced the last "peak." However, with every peak there is a valley and this one started about 2006 or 2007 when the last of the previous cycle's "big" sunspots began to fade. And that's where it's got just plain "weird."
Over the last two years, the sun has experienced unusually long periods of "spotlessness." It begs the question...what's going on?
The sun has gone through similarly long periods of low sunspot numbers. But astronomers have only been studying the sun for about 400 years, beginning when Galileo turned his primitive telescope to the sun and projected its bright image onto a white piece of paper.
From 1645 to 1715, the sun experienced a prolonged period without significant numbers of sunspots. During that time, Europe also experienced a "mini ice age" of unusually cold temperatures. Other data has begun to hint that, maybe, there is a link between sunspot activity and climate. Ironically, the sun's brightness actually increases with increased sunspots.
So indications seem to be that the sun is returning to greater activity. But the scientific effort to find answers continue. In the meantime, the hope - at least, for those of us who like to look at the sun - is that we're finally seeing the first of a continuing trend of increased activity.
Can you see it? Well, yes, if you're very careful. It's all about protection because viewing the sun without proper protection WILL result in blindness.
Here's some very UNSAFE methods of viewing the sun: through clouds, smoked glass, film negatives and sunglasses. Safe ways: Proper designed-for-solar viewing "eclipse glasses," Thousand Oaks or other astronomy related solar filters (glass or mylar) or minimum #14 welder's glass.
Failing that, if you own a telescope, there is also eyepiece projection. But make sure it's a telescope and eyepiece combo you didn't spend too much money. The concentrated sunlight from an unfiltered telescope is hot enough to melt tin. The exposed eye would end up in a lot worse condition, to say the least.
Of course, the best way to view the sun now is through websites like SOHO mentioned above, Big Bear Solar Observatory (http://www.bbso.njit.edu/) or even the STEREO spacecraft) http://stereo.gsfc.nasa.gov/spacecraft.shtml). No special protection required.
Clear and sunny skies!