COOL PICTURE—3 ECLIPSES

Cool Picture BusySun_slifer_960

It seems to me that some pictures deserve to be passed around the web. This picture by Doyle Slifer is one of them.

Three objects are eclipsing the the sun. First is the small airplane. Second is the streams of clouds. Third is the moon. (There is a fourth thing you can’t see; namely, specks of dirt on my computer screen.)

Above and to the left of the small plane is a group of sunspots on the surface of the sun itself.  As the sun rotated, these large sunspots swung around and pointed right at the Earth, in some ways like the barrel of a gun. There is always the possibility the spot will shoot a solar flare right at us, which can mess up our electronics in various ways.  A flare measuring “X-17” knocked out the electricity in Sweden in 2003. So far the largest this family of spots has produced is an “X-1”, and I think the nervous will exhale in relief as this swings away from us and vanishes around the backside of the sun. By the time the sun rotates around again the spots will likely be gone, or greatly reduced.

This group of spots are the largest of the current cycle, and demonstrate that even a “Quiet Sun” can occasionally make a big group. In some ways this is annoying, for once you get back in history our only records of sunspots are those that can be seen with the naked eye.

In the pre-telescope-era records from China, (the records somehow preserved from the zeal of the Red Guard, during Mao’s insane attempt to erase the past with the “Cultural Revolution”,) there are records of sunspots so large they were clearly seen when the sun was a low, orange disc, partially obscured by dust. Some assumed these historical events hinted at very active sunspot cycles,  but now we see they can occur during quiet times.