A Thanksgiving sun treat: Big sunspot rotates into view

A group of sunspots has emerged on the Earth-facing side of the sun, just in time for Thanksgiving. 

Researchers identified the sunspots before they were even visible from Earth, via a technique called helioseismology, which uses acoustic waves beneath the sun's surface to probe for the features.

"We measured a change in acoustic signals on the far side of the sun," Alexei Pevtsov, associate director for the National Solar Observatory (NSO) program that generates solar predictions, said in a statement. "We can use this technique to identify what is happening on the side of the sun that faces away from Earth, days before we can catch a glimpse from here."

Photos: Sunspots on Earth's closest star

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft captured this view of several large sunspots in November 2020. (Image credit: NASA/SDO/AIA/EVE/HMI)

The scientists predicted that the sunspots, the largest of which appears to be several times bigger than Earth, would rotate into view by Thanksgiving, which falls this year on Nov. 26. And this has indeed come to pass.

You may be able to see the sunspots with proper filters on binoculars or a small telescope, but be careful: You must have ISO-certified filters on the equipment at all times to observe the sun safely. Never look at the sun directly without such protective gear, especially when using astronomy equipment; doing so can cause permanent eye damage, including blindness.

Researchers use sunspots to make predictions about space weather, the activity the sun generates in the vicinity of Earth. Eruptions of charged particles can disrupt satellite communications and power lines, making it essential to know when sunspots — hubs of magnetic activity that serve as launch pads for such outbursts — will be coming around the bend and facing our planet.

"Having up to five days' lead time on the presence of active sunspots is extremely valuable to our technology-heavy society," Pevtsov added.

The sun is in the early months of its 11-year sunspot cycle and in a relatively quiet period. The sunspot group produced the strongest signal yet observed in this cycle, added Kiran Jain, the scientist who is leading the far-side prediction at NSO, in the same statement.

NSO has six monitoring stations worldwide that monitor the sun through the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG), which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

NSO officials added that the group anticipates needing to upgrade GONG in the coming years, as the network is almost three decades old and requires more modern instrumentation.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace