Stunning time-lapse photo of Sun shows sunspots at their peak

The high number of sunspots in the image suggests that solar activity is about to ramp up a notch.
Ayesha Gulzar
Representational image of dark sunspots.
Representational image of dark sunspots.

NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center 

A stunning time-lapse photo has captured the Sun during a peak sunspot activity. The photo shows two bands of shape-shifting sunspots moving across the Sun's surface as it spins at the center of the solar system. The high number of sunspots in the image suggests that solar activity is about to ramp up a notch, according to Live Science.

An amateur astrophotographer, Şenol Şanlı, based in Bursa, Turkey, created this captivating new image of the Sun using data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The photo, which was shared on his Instagram account on January 3, is a combination of photographs taken between December 2 and December 27, 2022.

It features two bands of shape-shifting sunspot clusters, belonging to two particularly large sunspot groups - A3176 and A3153 - situated in the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun, respectively. Both groups are seen moving from east to west in the image. Şanlı has digitally removed other visible sunspots on the Sun's surface during this period, allowing the observer to closely track the subtle changes in these sunspot groups over time.

What are sunspots?

Sunspots are dark, cold, planet-size regions on the surface of the Sun. They arise due to disturbances in the Sun's magnetic field, which can generate energetic solar events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

During December 2022, more than 113 sunspots were detected- the highest number recorded since December 2014. This total represents a significant increase compared to the average monthly count of 73.3 sunspots observed throughout the rest of the year before December.

The increase in sunspot activity results from the Sun entering a more active phase of its 11-year solar cycle, which is expected to reach its peak in 2025. Scientists have already recorded an increase in the frequency and strength of solar storms in 2022. If the number of sunspots remains high or increases further, 2023 will be even more active in terms of solar activity.

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What causes sunspots to arise?

The rotation period of the Sun is faster at the equator than at the poles, resulting in a phenomenon known as "differential rotation." This causes the Sun's magnetic field to become increasingly wound up as the Sun rotates, stretching the magnetic field between the poles and the equator.

This stretching causes tubes or tunnels to form in the magnetic field. The loops rise and break the surface, preventing the convection of the superheated gases underneath. This results in the creation of areas of lower temperature, which are visible as dark spots.

Sunspots are dark only in comparison to the surrounding solar surface; if you could scoop out a sunspot and hold it against the night sky, it would shine brighter than the Moon.

Sunspot sizes vary widely throughout the solar cycle

Sunspot sizes vary enormously. For a spot to be visible without magnification, it must be approximately twice the size of the Earth. By contrast, the largest group on record, from 1947, would have needed about 141 'Earth' to cover it. The length of time they appear changes as well: some last for just a few hours, but in 1943, a sunspot was recorded as lasting around six months.