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Aurora Borealis

Solar flares and the northern lights: How the sun's cycle changes colors in the sky

The sun is busy these days.

From sunspots and solar flares to coronal mass ejections and the aurora borealis, solar activity has been in the news recently. What's going on?

The sun goes through 11-year-long cycles, which alternate between "solar maximums" and "solar minimums." As of the middle of 2024, we are on the way toward the solar maximum, when solar activity is at its highest.

The sun's solar cycle and northern lights

When the sun is "active," it produces more sunspots, which appear as black splotches on the face of the sun. The sun also produces the flares and the coronal mass ejections that trigger geomagnetic storms and thus auroras here on Earth.

So far this year, May has been the busiest month in the sun's Solar Cycle 25.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the sun's strongest solar flare. It peaked on May 27, 2024; for comparison, the Earth is shown at its approximate size:

More:Northern lights forecast: Why skywatchers should stay on alert for another week

The sun's reversal of polarity

Our sun is a massive ball of electrically charged hot gas, which produces a powerful magnetic field, according to .

"Every 11 years or so, the sun's magnetic field completely flips," NASA says. "This means that the sun's north and south poles switch places. Then it takes about another 11 years for the sun’s north and south poles to flip back again."

Scientists predict the solar cycle will most likely complete its polarity reversal in the sun's Northern Hemisphere between June and November this year, with August as the median time. That will most likely bring more magnetic energy to Earth's atmosphere.

And that's great news for northern lights skywatchers.

In the sun's Southern Hemisphere, a polarity reversal is projected between November 2024 and August 2025, with January 2025 being the median time, according to a .

SOURCE NASA, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, Smithsonian and ӣƵ research

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