August 6, 2013
Solar ‘Flip’ Expected In Coming Months
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
[ Watch the Video: Preparing For The Solar Max Magnetic Flip ]
Solar experts are anticipating a major event that is about to happen within the next three or four months - the sun is going to flip.
Every eleven years, the Sun reaches the peak of its cycle and proceeds to switch polarity, making north become south and south become north. NASA scientists said the upcoming change will also mark the halfway point of solar max, a period of time defined by higher solar activity.
"It looks like we're no more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete field reversal," solar physicist Todd Hoeksema of Stanford University said via NASA press release. "This change will have ripple effects throughout the solar system."
Hoeksema is the director of Stanford's Wilcox Solar Observatory, which has tracked the sun's magnetic activity since 1976, and has already recorded three such reversals already. The reversal happens as the sun's magnetic core 're-organizes' itself.
The magnetic reorganization has ramifications that extend billions of miles - even beyond the solar system - in the form of the Sun's current sheet. The current sheet is a surface of electric current generated by the Sun's rotation that spreads out from its equator. While the current itself is only a miniscule one ten-billionth of an amp per square meter, the amperage covers a region 5,400 miles thick and billions of miles wide.
As the Sun begins its switch, it sends undulations through the current sheet that resemble the seams on a baseball. The Earth passes in and out of the current sheet as it orbits the sun, creating stormy space weather in the process.
The current sheet also protects our planet from cosmic radiation, or high-energy particles that pass through the galaxy at almost light speed as the result of supernova explosions and other violent events billions of miles away. These particles are dangerous for both astronauts and space probes and the current sheet deflects many of them away from the inner solar system. The many undulations caused by the switch actually acts to better protect Earth from the deadly rays.
With the reversal rapidly approaching, the NASA scientists noted that the two sides of the Sun are currently out of sync.
"The Sun's north pole has already changed sign, while the south pole is racing to catch up," said Scherrer. "Soon, however, both poles will be reversed, and the second half of Solar Max will be underway."
Some observers have noted that the current solar max is one of the weakest of the past century and say that it could lead to unusually low temperatures here on Earth. While the cycles of the sun take place with some regularity, scientists have yet to figure out how to predict solar activity. Initial predictions for this cycle had peak activity set to occur around 2010 or 2011. Many predictions also expected a higher than normal level of activity.