Sunspots?! We don't need no stinking sunspots

NASA-sponsored research may have solved mystery of spotless Sun

the sunspot theory
With all of the talk and concern lately about the increasing amount solar activity it may be hard for some folks to remember just a few years ago scientists were amazed by the lack of solar activity, namely sunspots.

Specifically, between 2008-2009 there were virtually no sunspots, but the affects were no less troublesome. According to NASA-sponsored research solar activity was at a hundred year low at that time which let the Earth's upper atmosphere cool and collapse; the sun's magnetic field weakened, letting more cosmic rays  penetrate the solar system in record numbers. As a consequence space debris stopped decaying and started accumulating in Earth orbit due to increased atmospheric drag.

But why? The answer may lie in one word: Plasma. "Plasma currents deep inside the sun interfered with the formation of sunspots and prolonged solar minimum," says Dibyendu Nandi of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. "Our conclusions are based on a new computer model of the sun's interior."

More on space: What's hot in space?

According to Kolkata: "Solar physicists have recognized the importance of the sun's "Great Conveyor Belt"  -- a vast system of plasma currents called 'meridional flows' (akin to ocean currents on Earth) travel along the sun's surface, plunge inward around the poles, and pop up again near the sun's equator. These looping currents play a key role in the 11-year solar cycle. When sunspots begin to decay, surface currents sweep up their magnetic remains and pull them down inside the star; 300,000 km below the surface, the sun's magnetic dynamo amplifies the decaying magnetic fields.  Sunspot production was stunted Re-animated sunspots become buoyant and bob up to the surface like a cork in water-voila! A new solar cycle is born."

For the first time, Nandi's team believes they have developed a computer model that gets the physics right for all three aspects of this process--the magnetic dynamo, the conveyor belt, and the buoyant evolution of sunspot magnetic fields.

the spotless sun 2008
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) will eventually provide measurements that could validate the current model and provide the basis for future solar cycle prediction, NASA stated.  SDO can measure the motions of the sun's conveyor belt-not just on the surface but deep inside, too. The technique is called helioseismology which can show the interior of the Sun. By plugging SDO's high-quality data into the computer model, the researchers might be able to predict how future solar minima will unfold, NASA stated.

NASA noted that while a Solar Maximum is relatively brief, lasting a few years punctuated by episodes of violent flaring, Solar Minimum can grind on for many years. The famous Maunder Minimum of the 17th century lasted 70 years and coincided with the deepest part of Europe's Little Ice Age. Researchers are still struggling to understand the connection, NASA said.

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