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With a solar maximum expected next year, predicting sunspot activity is going to be a hot topic. An international team of scientists has announced that it can identify emerging sunspots earlier than is currently possible.

The work, published in Science, is based on detecting acoustic waves that provide a “signature” of an emerging sunspot. The anomalies can be detected as deep as 65,000 km within the sun.

This means the sunspot may be detectable two days before it emerges and becomes visible. Given the apocalyptic predictions made for next year’s solar maximum – a period in which sunspot activity peaks – better predictions may be important for the world’s IT and telecoms industries.

The research team, led by Stathis Ilonidis of Stanford University, used data from the NASA / European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Observing the way acoustic waves travel within the sun, the researchers found that magnetic fields along the path of the waves would change their travel time.

Regions where acoustic waves move more quickly were associated with sunspots that emerged a day or two later.

While solar observation could get better, NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft has provided our first look at a solar storm all the way from the Sun to Earth. It’s taken three years to analyze the data collected by STEREO-A, but NASA scientists hope that the ability to track a CME – coronal mass ejection – long after it becomes too dim for optical telescopes could also improve our space weather forecasting.

“The ability to track a cloud continuously from the Sun to Earth is a big improvement,” says Alysha Reinhard of the NOAA’s Space Weather Center.

NASA has posted a video here. ®

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