On May 29, the Sun fired off its strongest flare since 2017 which was spotted by the Sun watching Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) of NASA. This led experts to wonder if the Sun has finally woken after its long slumber.
Solar flares are bursts of radiation that originate from the temporary dark and relatively cool patches of the solar surface called the sunspots, which boast very strong magnetic fields. Scientists categorized solar flares into three, namely the C, M, and X. Each of this class is ten times more powerful than the one beneath it.
X-class flares are ten times stronger than M flares, which is also ten times stronger than C flares.
When the Sun was in a Deep 'Solar Lull'
While the world was fighting the coronavirus and countries are on temporary lockdown, it seems that the Sun too is having a lockdown all of its own, according to Forbes.
According to a report of SpaceWeather.com, there have been 100 days in 2020 when the Sun has not displayed any sunspots. This is a sign of solar minimum because the lack of sunspots indicate that there is no solar activity that gives birth to solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
Scientists count the sunspots each day since 1838, which allows them to understand the wax and wane of activity on the Sun's surface, or also known as the solar cycle.
The Sun's cycle lasts between nine and 14 years, but mostly 11 years. At the peak of the cycle-called the solar maximum- the Sun produces electrons and protons that becomes solar flares.
But after some time of being in the phase of 'solar lull,' the Sun seems to be waking up as it unleashes its strongest flare yet since 2017.
Is the Sun Waking Up?
Space.com reports that the Sun's flare on May 29 was an M-class eruption which is no monster and was not aimed at Earth, so the chances of having supercharged auroras from a potential coronal mass ejection of solar plasma are not happening.
However, the outburst could also be a sign that the Sun is ramping up to a more active phase of its 11-year cycle, according to NASA officials. This means that the Sun's recent cycle might be coming to an end.
The Sun's new cycles start at "solar minimum" when the sunspots are fewest in number and have the least activity on the Sun's surface. But NASA officials wrote that it would take at least six months of solar observations and sunspot-counting after a minimum to determine when it has occurred.
"Because that minimum is defined by the lowest number of sunspots in a cycle, scientists need to see the numbers consistently rising before they can determine when exactly they were at the bottom," the officials wrote.
That means that solar minimum is an occurrence that can only be identified in hindsight as it takes almost a year after the fact to confirm when the solar minimum has passed.