By Jim Haklar
2013 is an exciting year for astronomers who study the Sun. It is the point in the Sun’s 11-year cycle when it should be the most active, and this is called Solar Maximum. During Solar Maximum there should be many sunspots. Sunspots are cooler areas of the Sun (that’s why they look like spots) where there is a lot of magnetic activity. There could also be eruptions of gas that are called solar flares.
But something strange is happening, since the Sun is less active than scientists predicted. No one knows exactly why this is happening, but it has happened in the past. And we probably should consider ourselves lucky, since a very active Sun could send electrically-charged particles toward the Earth in what is called the solar wind. These particles could potentially disrupt communications, interfere with the power grids, and damage satellites. But they also cause the beautiful Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. So, depending on your point of view, Solar Maximum can either be a good thing or a bad thing.
Since January I have been taking images of the Sun every clear day through special telescopes called solar telescopes. These telescopes have special filters that allow me to safely see and image solar activity (please do NOT stare at the Sun or try to view the Sun through an unfiltered telescope or binoculars, since this can cause permanent blindness). It’s amazing to see the Sun’s activity change from day to day. If you have an interest in the Solar Maximum, just contact a local astronomy club and they will be more than happy to safely show you the Sun. And you’d better hurry or else you may have to wait for the next Solar Maximum!
About the Author: Jim is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center. In his 28 years with the Agency he has worked in a variety of programs including Superfund, Water Management, Public Affairs, and Toxic Substances. He has been an amateur astronomer since he was a teenager, and can often be found after work in the back of the Edison facility with one of his telescopes.