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Quiet maximum

The current solar cycle is a snoozer, but that’s not a bad thing

SERENE STATE  An image taken in September by the STEREO spacecraft shows the sun in a state of relative serenity compared with past solar maxima.

Matt Penn is grateful for whatever the sun will give him. These days, that isn’t much. Penn’s job, as a solar astronomer, is to track the waxing and waning of sunspots on the solar surface. These dark blots mottle the face of the sun, increasing in number to a peak every 11 years and then falling off again in a rhythmic march choreographed by magnetic activity inside the star.

2013 marks the maximum of this solar cycle, yet Penn doesn’t have very much to look at. Atop Kitt Peak outside Tucson, Ariz., he often points his telescope at a barren orange orb. “Where are the sunspots?” he asks. “It’s amazing to see such low activity at the peak of our sunspot cycle.”

By almost any measure, this solar maximum has been pathetic. No more than 67 sunspots have appeared in a month so far; at the last peak, in 2000, that number was above 120. If the sun doesn’t pick up soon — which it probably won’t — the current solar cycle will be the wimpiest in a century.

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