The Sun has hit a 50-year low
The sun is apparently taking a big old nap, that only happens once in a century. The particles are now blowing with less vigor than before and less heat.
Data collected by the 18-year-old Ulysses spacecraft has confirmed this.
As a result, the cozy bubble of charged solar particles that fills the solar system is shrinking, exposing Earth and other planets to the onslaught of needling galactic cosmic rays which are normally held at bay by the solar wind.
"It's a big deal," said Nancy Crooker, solar researcher at Boston University. "It's the first time we've measured these conditions. It's expanding our horizons of what we can do and compare."
The sun is presently at the lowest point in its 11-year cycle of sunspot activity, but it's also 20 percent cooler and less windy than the last solar minimum in 1994-95, explained Karine Issautier, the Ulysses radio wave lead investigator at the Observatoire de Paris, Meudon, France. In other words, the sun is showing signs of other, much longer cycles which also affect its power output.
The sun is also at a low for wind speed and pressure, and thi sis the lowest ever recorded apparently.
It has fell before, but not to this level.
In practical terms the most minimal solar minimum means it's a bad time for astronauts to venture to the moon or beyond, because they would be outside of the protective magnetic field of the Earth and more exposed to cell-damaging cosmic rays, said Crooker. It's about as bad, ironically, as a furiously active sun which spews out dangerous radiation that would also hurt astronauts beyond Earth's orbit. Either extreme is bad news for interplanetary travel.
Inside Earth's magnetic field the main effect of the cooler, less windy sun is the cooling and lowering of the outermost part of the atmosphere. While that has minimal effects on the climate, it does slow down the rate at which orbiting manmade space junk gets dragged down and burned up in the atmosphere -- which is bad news to astronauts in orbit who fear collisions with the debris, Crooker explained.