Scientists have confirmed that the sun is nine months into a new solar cycle, and that this 11-year cycle will resemble its predecessor, running from 2008 and 2019. So what does this new cycle mean for Earth?
From analysis thus far, scientists say that the sun's current solar cycle, known as 'solar cycle 25', will reach a peak sunspot number of 115 in July 2025. Given that active solar cycles typically have peak sunspot numbers of over 200, they say that this cycle is expected to be relatively quiet.
Although quiet, scientists warn that our present cycle may still have a strong impact on Earth. In 2012, for example, despite being in the midst of a similarly quiet cycle, the sun produced an 'epic, hundred-year kind of solar storm' that fortunately missed Earth. Would it have happened just a week earlier, it would have hit Earth, where it would have caused havoc by frying satellites mid-orbit and instigating radio blackouts and GPS errors.
"During solar minimum, solar activity does not finish, it just changes form," says Lika Guhathakurta, a heliophysicist at NASA's headquarters. "For example, galactic cosmic rays are at an all-time high in the space environment, and this has all kinds of implications for space exploration, space tourism, and the aviation industry."
Space junk (pieces of man-made debris that orbit the Earth) also becomes a potential calamity during weak solar cycles. While a stronger solar cycle can burn up a lot of this 'junk' so it does not interfere with functional objects in Earth's orbit and new launches, a weaker sun cycle cannot do so.
Regardless of the challenges any solar cycle may pose, scientists nevertheless say that monitoring solar activity and making predictions about upcoming solar cycles will become even more important when astronauts begin venturing beyond the Earth's protective magnetic field.