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The Sun’s activity cycle lasts around 11 years, and during the maximum of this cycle, we see an increase in brilliant explosions, dark sunspots, loops of plasma, and swirls of super-hot gas. This activity is generated by the ‘solar dynamo’, a process that creates the Sun’s magnetic field. At the beginning of this cycle (the solar minimum), there is relatively little activity and few sunspots. However, as the cycle progresses towards maximum, we see more activity.

The most recent solar minimum was in December 2019, just two months before Solar Orbiter launched. During its early views in February 2021, the Sun was still relatively calm. We are now approaching solar maximum, which is expected to occur in 2025. Recent views taken by Solar Orbiter during a close approach to the Sun in October 2023 show a striking increase in solar activity. This adds weight to theories that the maximum could arrive up to a year earlier than expected.

Solar Orbiter will help us predict the timing and strength of solar cycles. Although it is notoriously tricky to predict these cycles accurately, it is vital because solar activity can seriously affect life on Earth; extreme eruptions can damage ground-based electricity grids and disable orbiting satellites. The images were taken by Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) instrument, which reveals the Sun’s upper atmosphere, which has a temperature of around a million degrees Celsius. EUI helps scientists investigate mysterious heating processes that occur in the Sun’s outer regions. Since EUI views the Sun in ultraviolet light, which is invisible to human eyes, the yellow color is added to help us visualize our changing Sun. Solar Orbiter is a space mission of international collaboration between ESA and NASA, operated by ESA

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