For the past few years, solar observers (yes, with the right equipment, it can be done safely) have been out of luck in looking at sunspots, as our nearest star was buried deep in one of its cyclical minimum periods. However, come 2013, the Sun is starting to get revved up once again as solar maximum is forecast for this year.
Result: a fast-growing sunspot capable of producing solar storms.
Even if you have just a pair of solar viewing glasses, it will be well worth grabbing them and going out to take a look as the sunspot, which is large enough to sallow six Earths, is big enough to be seen without any magnification. No solar glasses? If you have a #14 or darker welder's shield, you're in luck as this will block enough light in order to allow one to look at the Sun safely. Needlessly to say, a telescope equipped with a solar filter will really bring out all the fine details.
For even better news, space weather forecasters are predicting that this new sunspot, dubbed AR1678, could produce solar flares, and aurora.
The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged energy hits Earth, the particles react and the atoms/molecules in Earth's upper atmosphere give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual atom gives off a different glow when excited by the incoming solar wind. For us living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and higher. For those at mid latitudes, such as Cleveland's 41 degrees North, auroras don't find their way into our skies very often
However, there are always exceptions.
Right now, the Sun is headed for solar maximum, the peak in activity in its 11-year cycle. Because blasts of energy from the Sun are sure to become more powerful and frequent in the future, the chances of aurora working their way down to a Cleveland-like mid-Northern latitude become more likely. In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon. Needless to say, they were spectacular.
So how about now?
Unfortunately, predicting aurora, and more specifically, where exactly they will appear, is very much a guessing game. However, to help one's odds of seeing the Northern Lights, sigh up for Spaceweather's phone alert system, which can be set to call you when aurora are predicted to be visible over your location. Of course, always be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
For more info:
How the Sun could send us back to the Dark Ages
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