The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly known as NASA, has announced that the sun has officially entered a new solar cycle. According to a press release on its website, the agency called the new phase "solar cycle 25" and explained what the news means for Earth and the environment.
NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been tracking sunspots -- regions of reduced surface temperature -- for decades as a way to document the sun's cycles. Most cycles last around 11 years and are believed to be caused by a flip in magnetic polarity of the star.
Scientists predict that the new phase of sun activity will peak in July 2025 and will generally be about the same size as the peak of solar cycle 24, which ended this past December.
"As we emerge from solar minimum and approach Cycle 25's maximum, it is important to remember solar activity never stops; it changes form as the pendulum swings," said Lika Guhathakurta, solar scientist at the Heliophysics Division at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Astronomers are currently anticipating the same level as the "below-average" cycle 24. However, scientists have warned to prepare for some possible dangers.
"Just because it's a below-average solar cycle, doesn't mean there is no risk of extreme space weather," explained Jake Bleacher, chief scientist for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the space agency's headquarters.
"The sun's impact on our daily lives is real and is there. [Space Weather Prediction Center] is staffed 24/7, 365 days a year because the sun is always capable of giving us something to forecast," he added.
For example, a new solar cycle may have more active sunspot flares, which could result in coronal mass ejections (CME). The rays and ejected material from the star could have serious effects on Earth -- both in terms of human health and electric safety.
The excess light rays could mean that humans at higher altitudes, like those on airplanes, could be exposed to bursts of radiation, according to a report from How Stuff Works. In addition, a long-term consequence could include an increased risk of skin cancer.
In addition, there could be serious effects on electronics. In the worst case scenario, a CME could overload electrical grids and systems and fry a number of electronics. A CME in 1859, known as the Carrington Event, caused a number of fires and took down large parts of the United States' recently created telegraph network (via History.com).
In other astronomy news, The Inquisitr recently reported that scientists are celebrating the discovery of a noxious gas on Venus, one of the strongest signs yet that the neighboring planet may be harboring life.