The beginning of Solar Cycle 24 is finally here and that has implications for all of us. For example, anyone who uses a cell phone, GPS receiver, or satellite television may encounter more frequent reception problems, especially as the solar cycle matures.

There are some people including myself, who are actually looking forward to the increase in sunspot activity. As an amateur radio operator, solar storms and flare disruptions open all sorts of interesting opportunities for enhanced radio communications on the Ham bands. It also will spark an increase is one of nature’s most impressive visual artworks. In fact the first aurora of the new solar cycle has already been recorded on January 4, 2008.

Meet sunspot 10981

A new sunspot named 10,981 heralded the beginning of Solar Cycle 24. The sun has sunspots all of the time, what makes sunspot 10981 significant is that it was observed at a high-latitude and had reversed polarity. To explain, mature solar cycle sunspots occur near the sun’s equator, while sunspot 10981 appeared at what is called high latitude, specifically 30 degrees North. Sunspot 10981 also has what is called reversed polarity, meaning the sunspot has the opposite magnetic polarity when compared to sunspots in the prior solar cycle. Both of these observations are indicators to scientists that a new solar cycle is on hand.

Scientists say that sunspot 10981 is actually a rather small one, only about the size of the Earth, which should give some perspective to the actual size of the sun. Even though sunspot 10981 is already gone, it has scientists and engineers wondering about their predictions for Solar Cycle 24. Most predict that the new cycle will be a somewhat anemic one, but if there are a significant number of sunspots and other solar storms early in the cycle it usually means a highly active solar season, which normally lasts 11 years.

OK, so what’s the big deal?

Sunspots and other solar storms generate immense magnetic fields that affect all electronics, especially wireless devices. Describing the storm’s effects in increasing magnitude: solar storms affect all satellite electronics, solar flares can affect all forms of wireless reception on Earth, and coronal mass ejections (CME) the most powerful storms have the potential to cause electrical power outages by affecting grid management. The fact that the citizens of Earth are increasingly dependent on space technology, makes the situation that much more critical, since satellites are the first equipment to be affected by solar storms

Airlines are also very respectful of solar storms and monitor their activity closely. Solar activity can affect airplane communications, as well as create navigation and computational errors. What is not very well known is that these effects are more prevalent on what are called the polar routes, which are international flight paths that travel over the Earth’s poles. These routes are very appealing to airlines because it allows the airplane to travel the shortest distance between two cities, for example New York and Tokyo. If solar activity reaches a certain magnitude the airlines will have to avoid the polar routes which increase costs and take considerably longer.

No worries just yet

Solar Cycle 24 is just starting and most of the intense activity is years away, but is interesting just the same. In fact NASA is getting ready to launch a new satellite to study Solar Cycle 24, called Solar Dynamics Observatory. I feel it is important to mention that the solar phenomena mentioned here is not visible to the naked eye, so please refer to the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory website to see any kind of activity on the sun’s surface.