The Solar Cycle is Crashing

by Dr. Tony Phillips  of

Anyone wondering why the sun has been so quiet lately? The reason may be found in the graph below. The 11-year sunspot cycle is crashing:

For the past two years, the sunspot number has been dropping as the sun transitions from Solar Max to Solar Min. Fewer sunspots means there are fewer solar flares and fewer coronal mass ejections (CMEs). As these explosions subside, we deem the sun “quiet.”

But how quiet is it, really?

A widely-held misconception is that space weather stalls and becomes uninteresting during periods of low sunspot number. In fact, by turning the solar cycle sideways, we see that Solar Minimum brings many interesting changes. For instance, the upper atmosphere of Earth collapses, allowing space junk to accumulate around our planet. The heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth. And galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system with relative ease. Indeed, a cosmic ray surge is already underway. (Goodbye sunspots, hello deep-space radiation.)

Stay tuned for updates as the sunspot number continues to drop.


March 31, 2016: Around the USA, science fairs are underway in all 50 states. Middle-school student Sydney R. of Turlock, California, decided to do her experiment at the edge of space. On March 23rd, she flew packets of baker’s yeast to the stratosphere onboard an Earth to Sky Calculus helium balloon. The fungi reached an altitude of 116,181 feet:

At the apex of the flight, the yeast absorbed doses of cosmic radiation more than 100x Earth-normal. Meanwhile, back on Earth, control samples remained in their usual place in the kitchen cupboard. The two samples, flown vs. control, form the basis of Sydney’s experiment.

She plans to do some “space baking.” Sydney has a recipe for brownies that calls for yeast, and she is going to prepare the dessert using both kinds of leavening. Does space yeast make the same delicious brownies as terrestrial yeast? Hungry astronauts would love to know.