The current solar-activity cycle peaked in May 2000, but someone apparently forgot to tell the Sun. As one giant sunspot complex prepares to rotate off our star's face, another has already swung into view. Both are currently visible to the unaided eye and are nothing short of spectacular in a telescope — provided you use safe solar filters, of course.
Last week Sunwatchers kept an eye on the active region designated 10030 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This complex flared repeatedly as it crossed the solar disk. It was (and still is) one of the largest spot groups in recent years. But active region 10039, which has now rotated into full view, looks like it may be even more stormy.
Even before this second sunspot complex became visible, astronomers suspected it packed a strong punch, because they detected ionized gas leaping up thousands of miles from behind the Sun's limb. Yesterday the newly visible spot group produced a spectacularly powerful ("X-class") flare. With the Moon now waning and out of the evening sky, there's a good chance observers at middle latitudes may catch a rare auroral display before bedtime one night soon.
"The next two weeks may see more 'fire in the sky' than we have in the last 10 years," says Cary Oler (Solar Terrestrial Dispatch), "if the spot complex continues to pump out activity at the furious rate that it is presumed to have produced over the last week."