A Completely Spotless Sun Baffles Scientists

The Sun has gone eerily quiet recently. As evidenced by recent solar activity and the known history of the solar maximum occurring every 11 years, this phenomenon is quite odd.

Solar maximum is supposed to be the time when the Sun is at its most active. The massive ball of gas should be sporting all kinds of sun spots and solar flares during this timeframe, with slightly less activity over the next few years until it flares up again in another 11 years.

Back in May, as mentioned in this article, the Sun had a rather large spot, but now the surface looks almost as smooth as a baby’s bottom. What’s going on?

The above image, taken by NASA on July 18th, is almost completely devoid of spots, and in fact solar physicist Tony Phillips says this is the wimpiest solar maximum to have occurred during the space age. “It is weird, but it’s not super weird,” he explains. “It all underlines that solar physicists really don’t know what the heck is happening on the Sun. We just don’t know how to predict the Sun, that is the take away message of this event.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop physicists from postulating their theories as to why the Sun’s spots are diminishing. Some of them even predicted clear back in 2011 that the spots could well disappear for several decades.

This idea springs from the fact that originally 2013 was meant to be the year of the solar maximus, and yet turned out to be relatively slow, prompting most researchers to believe that 2014 is likely to be the year they were waiting for instead. However, since this is completely uncharted territory for all parties concerned, it’s difficult to say exactly what the Sun is likely to do. It may do something completely unexpected.

Alex Young, a heliophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center, says it’s hard to say what is and isn’t unusual when it comes to the Sun. “We’ve only been observing the Sun in lots of detail in the last 50 years,” he explains. “that’s not that long considering it’s been around for 4.5 billion years.”

Also, this isn’t the first time the Sun has gone completely silent. Phillips points out that when it went silent three years ago, that year turned out to have relatively high solar activity overall. So does that mean the Sun is likely to flare up again after a short rest? “You just can’t predict the Sun,” Phillips said.