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NASA's SDO Observes Largest Sunspot of the Solar Cycle (15430820129).jpgSunspots 1302 Sep 2011 by NASA.jpg
172197main NASA Flare Gband lg-withouttext.jpgSunspot TRACE.jpeg
Solar Archipelago - Flickr - NASA Goddard Photo and Video.jpg
  • Top: active region 2192 in 2014 containing the largest sunspot of solar cycle 24[1] and active region 1302 in September 2011.
  • Middle: sunspot close-up in the visible spectrum (left) and another sunspot in UV, taken by the TRACE observatory.
  • Bottom: a large group of sunspots stretching about 320,000 km (200,000 mi) across.

Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the Sun's photosphere that appear as spots darker than the surrounding areas. They are regions of reduced surface temperature caused by concentrations of magnetic flux that inhibit convection. Sunspots appear within active regions, usually in pairs of opposite magnetic polarity.[2] Their number varies according to the approximately 11-year solar cycle.

Individual sunspots or groups of sunspots may last anywhere from a few days to a few months, but eventually decay. Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the Sun, with diameters ranging from 16 km (10 mi)[3] to 160,000 km (100,000 mi).[4] Larger sunspots can be visible from Earth without the aid of a telescope.[5] They may travel at relative speeds, or proper motions, of a few hundred meters per second when they first emerge.

Indicating intense magnetic activity, sunspots accompany other active region phenomena such as coronal loops, prominences, and reconnection events. Most solar flares and coronal mass ejections originate in these magnetically active regions around visible sunspot groupings. Similar phenomena indirectly observed on stars other than the Sun are commonly called starspots, and both light and dark spots have been measured.[6]


The earliest record of sunspots is found in the Chinese I Ching, completed before 800 BC.[7] The text describes that a dou and mei were observed in the sun, where both words refer to a small obscuration.[7] The earliest record of a deliberate sunspot observation also comes from China, and dates to 364 BC, based on comments by astronomer Gan De (甘德) in a star catalogue.[8] By 28 BC, Chinese astronomers were regularly recording sunspot observations in official imperial records.[9]

The first clear mention of a sunspot in Western literature is circa 300 BC, by ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus, student of Plato and Aristotle and successor to the latter.[10]

The first drawings of sunspots were made by English monk John of Worcester in December 1128.[11][12]

Sunspots were first observed telescopically in late 1610 by English astronomer Thomas Harriot and Frisian astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius, who published a description in June 1611.[13] After Johannes Fabricius' death at the age of 29, the book remained obscure and was eclipsed by the independent discoveries of and publications about sunspots by Christoph Scheiner and Galileo Galilei, few months later.[14]

In the early 19th Century, William Herschel was one of the first to equate sunspots with the abundance of heating and cooling it was capable of causing on Earth. He believed that the "great shallows (sunspots' penumbrae) ridges (bright, elevated extended features resembling faculae) nodules (bright, elevated, yet smaller features resembling luculi) and corrugations (less luminous, rough, mottled, dark features) instead of small indentations (depressed, extended dark features) on the sun would let in large amounts of heat into Earth. On the other hand, "pores, small indentations -central regions of dark, depressed spots - and the nodules' and ridges' absence," meant less heat touching Earth.[15] During his recognition of solar behavior and hypothesized solar structure, he inadvertently picked up the relative absence altogether of spots on the Sun from July, 1795 to January, 1800. He was perhaps the very first to construct a past record or observed or missing sunspots and found that, in England at least, the absence of sunspots coincided with high wheat prices. Herschel read his paper before the Royal Society. He was completely misinterpreted and heartily ridiculed before that body.[16]



A decaying sunspot shown over the course of two hours. The umbra is separated into two pieces within the penumbra by a lightbridge.[17] Solar pores are also visible to the left of the penumbra.

Sunspots have two main structures: a central umbra and a surrounding penumbra. The umbra is the darkest region of a sunspot and is where the magnetic field is strongest and approximately vertical, or normal, to the Sun's surface, or photosphere. The umbra may be surrounded completely or only partially by a brighter region known as the penumbra.[18] The penumbra is composed of radially elongated structures known as penumbral filaments and has a more inclined magnetic field than the umbra.[19] Within sunspot groups, multiple umbrae may be surrounded by a single, continuous penumbra.

The temperature of the umbra is roughly 3,000–4,500 K (2,700–4,200 °C), in contrast to the penumbra at about 5,780 K (5,500 °C) leaving sunspots clearly visible as dark spots. This is because the luminance of a heated black body (closely approximated by the photosphere) at these temperatures varies greatly with temperature. Isolated from the surrounding photosphere, a single sunspot would shine brighter than the full moon, with a crimson-orange color.[20]

The Wilson effect implies that sunspots are depressions on the Sun's surface.


The emergence and evolution of a sunspot group over a period of two weeks.

The appearance of an individual sunspot may last anywhere from a few days to a few months, though groups of sunspots and their associated active regions tend to last weeks or months. Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the Sun, with diameters ranging from 16 km (10 mi) to 160,000 km (100,000 mi).[citation needed]


Although the details of sunspot formation are still a matter of ongoing research, it is widely understood that they are the visible manifestations of magnetic flux tubes in the Sun's convective zone projecting through the photosphere within active regions.[21] Their characteristic darkening occurs due to this strong magnetic field inhibiting convection in the photosphere. As a result, the energy flux from the Sun's interior decreases, and with it, surface temperature, causing the surface area through which the magnetic field passes to look dark against the bright background of photospheric granules.

Sunspots initially appear in the photosphere as small darkened spots lacking a penumbra. These structures are known as solar pores.[22] Over time, these pores increase in size and move towards one another. When a pore gets large enough, typically around 3,500 km (2,000 mi) in diameter, a penumbra will begin to form.[21]


Magnetic pressure should tend to remove field concentrations, causing the sunspots to disperse, but sunspot lifetimes are measured in days to weeks. In 2001, observations from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) using sound waves traveling below the photosphere (local helioseismology) were used to develop a three-dimensional image of the internal structure below sunspots; these observations show that a powerful downdraft underneath each sunspot, forms a rotating vortex that sustains the concentrated magnetic field.[23]

Solar cycle[edit]

Point chart showing sunspot area as percent of the total area at various latitudes, above grouped bar chart showing average daily sunspot area as % of visible hemisphere.
Butterfly diagram showing paired Spörer's law behavior
The full solar disk over the course of 13 days during the rise of solar cycle 24.

Solar cycle duration is typically about eleven years, varying from just under 10 to just over 12 years. Over the solar cycle, sunspot populations rise quickly and then fall more slowly. The point of highest sunspot activity during a cycle is known as solar maximum, and the point of lowest activity as solar minimum. This period is also observed in most other solar activity and is linked to a variation in the solar magnetic field that changes polarity with this period.

Early in the cycle, sunspots appear at higher latitudes and then move towards the equator as the cycle approaches maximum, following Spörer's law. Spots from two sequential cycles co-exist for several years during the years near solar minimum. Spots from sequential cycles can be distinguished by direction of their magnetic field and their latitude.

The Wolf number sunspot index counts the average number of sunspots and groups of sunspots during specific intervals. The 11-year solar cycles are numbered sequentially, starting with the observations made in the 1750s.[24]

George Ellery Hale first linked magnetic fields and sunspots in 1908.[25] Hale suggested that the sunspot cycle period is 22 years, covering two periods of increased and decreased sunspot numbers, accompanied by polar reversals of the solar magnetic dipole field. Horace W. Babcock later proposed a qualitative model for the dynamics of the solar outer layers. The Babcock Model explains that magnetic fields cause the behavior described by Spörer's law, as well as other effects, which are twisted by the Sun's rotation.

Longer-period trends[edit]

Sunspot numbers also change over long periods. For example during the period known as the modern maximum from 1900 to 1958 the solar maxima trend of sunspot count was upwards; for the following 60 years the trend was mostly downwards.[26] Overall, the Sun was last as active as the modern maximum over 8,000 years ago.[27]

Sunspot number is correlated with the intensity of solar radiation over the period since 1979, when satellite measurements became available. The variation caused by the sunspot cycle to solar output is on the order of 0.1% of the solar constant (a peak-to-trough range of 1.3 W·m−2 compared with 1366 W·m−2 for the average solar constant).[28][29]

400-year history of sunspot numbers, showing Maunder and Dalton minima, and the Modern Maximum (left) and 11,000-year sunspot reconstruction showing a downward trend over 2000 BC – 1600 AD followed by the recent 400 year uptrend

Modern observation[edit]

Sunspots are observed with land-based and Earth-orbiting solar telescopes. These telescopes use filtration and projection techniques for direct observation, in addition to various types of filtered cameras. Specialized tools such as spectroscopes and spectrohelioscopes are used to examine sunspots and sunspot areas. Artificial eclipses allow viewing of the circumference of the Sun as sunspots rotate through the horizon.

Since looking directly at the Sun with the naked eye permanently damages human vision, amateur observation of sunspots is generally conducted using projected images, or directly through protective filters. Small sections of very dark filter glass, such as a #14 welder's glass, are effective. A telescope eyepiece can project the image, without filtration, onto a white screen where it can be viewed indirectly, and even traced, to follow sunspot evolution. Special purpose hydrogen-alpha narrow bandpass filters and aluminum-coated glass attenuation filters (which have the appearance of mirrors due to their extremely high optical density) on the front of a telescope provide safe observation through the eyepiece.


Due to its link to other kinds of solar activity, sunspot occurrence can be used to help predict space weather, the state of the ionosphere, and hence the conditions of short-wave radio propagation or satellite communications. High sunspot activity is celebrated by members of the amateur radio community as a harbinger of excellent ionospheric propagation conditions that greatly increase radio range in the HF bands. During sunspot peaks, worldwide radio communication can be possible on frequencies as high as the 6-meter VHF band.[30] Solar activity (and the solar cycle) have been implicated in global warming, originally the role of the Maunder Minimum of sunspot occurrence in the Little Ice Age in European winter climate.[31] Sunspots themselves, in terms of the magnitude of their radiant-energy deficit, have a weak effect on solar flux[32] however the total solar flux increases as "At solar maximum the Sun is some 0.1% brighter than its solar-minimum level". On longer time scales, such as the solar cycle, other magnetic phenomena (faculae and the chromospheric network) correlate with sunspot occurrence.[33]


In 1947, G. E. Kron proposed that starspots were the reason for periodic changes in brightness on red dwarfs.[6] Since the mid-1990s, starspot observations have been made using increasingly powerful techniques yielding more and more detail: photometry showed starspot growth and decay and showed cyclic behavior similar to the Sun's; spectroscopy examined the structure of starspot regions by analyzing variations in spectral line splitting due to the Zeeman effect; Doppler imaging showed differential rotation of spots for several stars and distributions different from the Sun's; spectral line analysis measured the temperature range of spots and the stellar surfaces. For example, in 1999, Strassmeier reported the largest cool starspot ever seen rotating the giant K0 star XX Triangulum (HD 12545) with a temperature of 3,500 K (3,230 °C), together with a warm spot of 4,800 K (4,530 °C).[6][34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gentle giant sunspot region 2192".
  2. ^ "Sunspots". NOAA. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  3. ^ "How Are Magnetic Fields Related To Sunspots?". NASA. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  4. ^ "Sun". HowStuffWorks. 22 April 2009. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  5. ^ "1989QJRAS..30...59M Page 60". Bibcode:1989QJRAS..30...59M. Retrieved 27 June 2021.
  6. ^ a b c Strassmeier, K. G. (10 June 1999). "Smallest KPNO Telescope Discovers Biggest Starspots (press release 990610)". University of Vienna. Archived from the original on 24 June 2010. Retrieved 20 February 2008. starspots vary on the same (short) time scales as Sunspots do ... HD 12545 had a warm spot (350 K above photospheric temperature; the white area in the picture)
  7. ^ a b Xu Zhen-Tao (1980). "The hexagram "Feng" in "the book of changes" as the earliest written record of sunspot". Chinese Astronomy. 4 (4): 406. Bibcode:1980ChA.....4..406X. doi:10.1016/0146-6364(80)90034-1.
  8. ^ "Early Astronomy and the Beginnings of a Mathematical Science". NRICH (University of Cambridge). 2007. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  9. ^ "The Observation of Sunspots". UNESCO Courier. 1988. Archived from the original on 2 July 2011. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  10. ^ "Letter to the Editor: Sunspot observations by Theophrastus revisited"
  11. ^ Stephenson, F. R.; Willis, D. M. (1999). "The earliest drawing of sunspots". Astronomy & Geophysics. 40 (6): 6.21–6.22. Bibcode:1999A&G....40f..21S. doi:10.1093/astrog/ ISSN 1366-8781.
  12. ^ Stefan Hughes, Catchers of the Light: The Forgotten Lives of the Men and Women Who First Photographed the Heavens, ArtDeCiel Publishing, 2012 p.317
  13. ^ "Great Moments in the History of Solar Physics 1". Great Moments in the History of Solar Physics. Archived from the original on 1 March 2006. Retrieved 19 March 2006.
  14. ^ Carlowicz, Michael J.; López, Ramón (2002). Storms from the Sun: The Emerging Science of Space Weather. Joseph Henry Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780309076425. Retrieved 19 June 2020.
  15. ^ Herschel, W., "Observations tending to investigate the nature of the Sun, in order to find causes and symptoms of its variable emission of light and heat"...Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 91, 1801
  16. ^ Soon, W., and Yaskell, S.H., The Maunder Minimum and the Variable Sun-earth Connection (World Scientific Press: 2003) pp 87-88
  17. ^ Felipe, T.; Collados, M.; Khomenko, E.; Kuckein, C.; Asensio Ramos, A.; Balthasar, H.; Berkefeld, T.; Denker, C.; Feller, A.; Franz, M.; Hofmann, A.; Joshi, J.; Kiess, C.; Lagg, A.; Nicklas, H.; Orozco Suárez, D.; Pastor Yabar, A.; Rezaei, R.; Schlichenmaier, R.; Schmidt, D.; Schmidt, W.; Sigwarth, M.; Sobotka, M.; Solanki, S. K.; Soltau, D.; Staude, J.; Strassmeier, K. G.; Volkmer, R.; von der Lühe, O.; Waldmann, T. (December 2016). "Three-dimensional structure of a sunspot light bridge" (PDF). Astronomy & Astrophysics. 596: A59. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201629586. Retrieved 5 January 2022.
  18. ^ Schlichenmaier, R.; Rezaei, R.; Bello González, N.; Waldmann, T. A. (March 2010). "The formation of a sunspot penumbra". Astronomy and Astrophysics. 512: L1. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201014112.
  19. ^ Mathew, S. K.; Lagg, A.; Solanki, S. K.; Collados, M.; Borrero, J. M.; Berdyugina, S.; Krupp, N.; Woch, J.; Frutiger, C. (November 2003). "Three dimensional structure of a regular sunspot from the inversion of IR Stokes profiles". Astronomy & Astrophysics. 410 (2): 695–710. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20031282.
  20. ^ "Sunspots". NASA. 1 April 1998. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  21. ^ a b Solanki, Sami K. (1 April 2003). "Sunspots: An overview". Astronomy and Astrophysics Review. 11 (2–3): 153–286. doi:10.1007/s00159-003-0018-4.
  22. ^ Sobotka, Michal; Vazquez, Manuel; Bonet, Jose Antonio; Hanslmeier, Arnold; Hirzberger, Johann (20 January 1999). "Temporal Evolution of Fine Structures in and around Solar Pores" (PDF). The Astrophysical Journal. 511 (1): 436–450. doi:10.1086/306671. Retrieved 5 January 2022.
  23. ^ NASA News Release (6 November 2001). "SOHO reveals how sunspots take stranglehold on the Sun". SpaceFlight Now. Archived from the original on 17 January 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  24. ^ Tribble, A. (2003). The Space Environment, Implications for Spacecraft Design. Princeton University Press. pp. 15–18.
  25. ^ Hale, G. E. (1908). "On the Probable Existence of a Magnetic Field in Sun-Spots". The Astrophysical Journal. 28: 315. Bibcode:1908ApJ....28..315H. doi:10.1086/141602.
  26. ^ "Sunspot index graphics". Solar Influences Data Analysis Center. Retrieved 27 September 2007.
  27. ^ Solanki SK; Usoskin IG; Kromer B; Schüssler M; et al. (October 2004). "Unusual activity of the Sun during recent decades compared to the previous 11,000 years". Nature. 431 (7012): 1084–1087. Bibcode:2004Natur.431.1084S. doi:10.1038/nature02995. PMID 15510145. S2CID 4373732.
  28. ^ "Solar Forcing of Climate". Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis. Archived from the original on 15 March 2005. Retrieved 10 March 2005.
  29. ^ Weart, Spencer (2006). Weart, Spencer (ed.). "The Discovery of Global Warming—Changing Sun, Changing Climate?". American Institute of Physics. Retrieved 14 April 2007.
  30. ^ Stu Turner. "Sunspots and Propagation". Ham Radio Archived from the original on 26 June 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  31. ^ Eddy J.A. (June 1976). "The Maunder Minimum". Science. 192 (4245): 1189–1202. Bibcode:1976Sci...192.1189E. doi:10.1126/science.192.4245.1189. PMID 17771739. S2CID 33896851. PDF Copy Archived 16 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ Hudson H (2008). "Solar activity". Scholarpedia. 3 (3): 3967. Bibcode:2008SchpJ...3.3967H. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.3967. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  33. ^ Willson, R. C.; Gulkis, S.; Janssen, M.; Hudson, H. S.; Chapman, G. A. (1981). "Observations of solar irradiance variability". Science. 211 (4483): 700–2. Bibcode:1981Sci...211..700W. doi:10.1126/science.211.4483.700. PMID 17776650.
  34. ^ "Derived images showing rotation of cool and warm starspots". Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics. Archived from the original on 29 May 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carl Luetzelschwab, K9LA (October 2016). "The new sunspot numbers". QST. 100 (10): 38–41. ISSN 0033-4812.

External links[edit]

Sunspot data[edit]