From The Eberly College of Science at The Pennsylvania State University: “Nearby star could help explain why our Sun didn’t have sunspots for 70 years”

From The Eberly College of Science

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The Pennsylvania State University

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22 March 2022
Gail McCormick

The number of sunspots on our Sun typically ebbs and flows in a predictable 11-year cycle, but one unusual 70-year period when sunspots were incredibly rare has mystified scientists for 300 years. Now a nearby Sun-like star seems to have paused its own cycles and entered a similar period of rare starspots, according to a team of researchers at Penn State. Continuing to observe this star could help explain what happened to our own Sun during this “Maunder Minimum” as well as lend insight into the Sun’s stellar magnetic activity, which can interfere with satellites and global communications and possibly even affect climate on Earth.

The star—and a catalog of 5 decades of starspot activity of 58 other Sun-like stars—is described in a new paper that appears online in The Astronomical Journal.

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A new study has identified a nearby star whose sunspot cycles appear to have stopped. Studying this star might help explain the period from the mid 1600s to the early 1700s when our Sun paused its sunspot cycles. This image depicts a typical 11-year cycle on the Sun, with the fewest sunspots appearing at its minimum (top left and top right) and the most appearing at its maximum (center). Credit: The National Aeronautics and Space Agency

Starspots appear as a dark spot on a star’s surface due to temporary lower temperatures in the area resulting from the star’s dynamo—the process that creates its magnetic field. Astronomers have been documenting changes in starspot frequency on our Sun since they were first observed by Galileo and other astronomers in the 1600s, so there is a good record of its 11-year cycle. The exception is the Maunder Minimum, which lasted from the mid 1600s to early 1700s and has perplexed astronomers ever since.

“We don’t really know what caused the Maunder Minimum, and we have been looking to other Sun-like stars to see if they can offer some insight,” said Anna Baum, an undergraduate at Penn State at the time of the research and first author of the paper. “We have identified a star that we believe has entered a state similar to the Maunder Minimum. It will be really exciting to continue to observe this star during, and hopefully as it comes out of, this minimum, which could be extremely informative about the Sun’s activity 300 years ago.”

The research team pulled data from multiple sources to stitch together 50 to 60 years of starspot data for 59 stars. This included data from the Mount Wilson Observatory HK Project—which was designed to study stellar surface activity and ran from 1966 to 1996—and from planet searches at The W. M. Keck Observatory, MaunaKea, Hawai’i which include this kind of data as part of their ongoing search for exoplanets from 1996 to 2020.

The researchers compiled a database of stars that appeared in both sources and that had other readily available information that might help explain starspot activity. The team also made considerable efforts to standardize measurements from the different telescopes to be able to compare them directly and otherwise clean up the data.

The team identified or confirmed that 29 of these stars have starspot cycles by observing at least two full periods of cycles, which often last more than a decade. Some stars did not appear to have cycles at all, which could be because they are rotating too slowly to have a dynamo and are magnetically ‘dead’ or because they are near the end of their lives. Several of the stars require further study to confirm whether they have a cycle.

“This continuous, more than 50-year time series allows us to see things that we never would have noticed from the 10-year snapshots that we were doing before,” said Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and an author of the paper. “Excitingly, Anna has found a promising star that was cycling for decades but appears to have stopped.”

According to the researchers, the star—called HD 166620—was estimated to have a cycle of about 17 years but has now entered a period of low activity and has shown no signs of starspots since 2003.

“When we first saw this data, we thought it must have been a mistake, that we pulled together data from two different stars or there was a typo in the catalog or the star was misidentified,” said Jacob Luhn, a graduate student at Penn State when the project began who is now at The University of California-Irvine. “But we double- and triple-checked everything. The times of observation were consistent with the coordinates we expected the star to have. And there aren’t that many bright stars in the sky that Mount Wilson observed. No matter how many times we checked, we always come to the conclusion that this star has simply stopped cycling.”

The researchers hope to continue studying this star throughout its minimum period and potentially as it comes out of its minimum and begins to cycle once again. This continued observation could provide important information about how the Sun and stars like it generate their magnetic dynamos.

“There’s a big debate about what the Maunder Minimum was,” said Baum, who is now a doctoral student at Lehigh University studying stellar astronomy and asteroseismology. “Did the Sun’s magnetic field basically turn off? Did it lose its dynamo? Or was it still cycling but at a very low level that didn’t produce many sunspots? We can’t go back in time to take measurements of what it was like, but if we can characterize the magnetic structure and magnetic field strength of this star, we might start to get some answers.”

A better understanding of the surface activity and magnetic field of the Sun could have several important implications. For example, strong stellar activity can disable satellites and global communications, and one particularly strong solar storm disabled a power grid in Quebec in 1989. It has also been suggested that sunspot cycles may have a connection to climate on Earth. Additionally, the researchers said that information from this star could impact our search for planets beyond our solar system.

“Starspots and other forms of surface magnetic activity of stars interfere with our ability to detect the planets around them,” said Howard Isaacson, a research scientist at The University of California-Berkeley, and an author of the paper. “Improving our understanding of a star’s magnetic activity might help us improve our detection efforts.”

The curated database of the 59 stars and their starspot activity from this research has been made available for researchers to further investigate

“This research is a great example of cross-generational astronomy, and how we continue to improve our understanding of the universe by building upon the many observations and dedicated research of astronomers that came before us,” said Wright. “I looked at starspot data from Mount Wilson and Keck Observatory for my thesis when I was a graduate student, Howard looked at starspot data from the California Planet Survey for his master’s thesis, and now Anna has stitched together all the data for a more comprehensive look across the years. We are all excited to continue studying this and other promising stars.”

See the full article here .

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The Eberly College of Science is the science college of Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1859 by Jacob S. Whitman, professor of natural science. The College offers baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in the basic sciences. It was named after Robert E. Eberly.

Academics Eberly College of Science offers sixteen majors in four disciplines: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.[2]
• The Life Sciences: Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Biotechnology, Microbiology
• The Physical Sciences: Astronomy & Astrophysics, Chemistry, Physics, Planetary Science and Astronomy
• The Mathematical Sciences: Mathematics, Statistics, Data Sciences
• Interdisciplinary Programs: General Science, Forensic Science, Premedicine, Integrated Premedical-Medical, Science BS/MBA

Penn State Campus

The Pennsylvania State University is a public state-related land-grant research university with campuses and facilities throughout Pennsylvania. Founded in 1855 as the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, Penn State became the state’s only land-grant university in 1863. Today, Penn State is a major research university which conducts teaching, research, and public service. Its instructional mission includes undergraduate, graduate, professional and continuing education offered through resident instruction and online delivery. In addition to its land-grant designation, it also participates in the sea-grant, space-grant, and sun-grant research consortia; it is one of only four such universities (along with Cornell University, Oregon State University, and University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa). Its University Park campus, which is the largest and serves as the administrative hub, lies within the Borough of State College and College Township. It has two law schools: Penn State Law, on the school’s University Park campus, and Dickinson Law, in Carlisle. The College of Medicine is in Hershey. Penn State is one university that is geographically distributed throughout Pennsylvania. There are 19 commonwealth campuses and 5 special mission campuses located across the state. The University Park campus has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies,” a publicly funded university considered as providing a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League.

The Pennsylvania State University is a member of The Association of American Universities an organization of American research universities devoted to maintaining a strong system of academic research and education.

Annual enrollment at the University Park campus totals more than 46,800 graduate and undergraduate students, making it one of the largest universities in the United States. It has the world’s largest dues-paying alumni association. The university offers more than 160 majors among all its campuses.

Annually, the university hosts the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON), which is the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. This event is held at the Bryce Jordan Center on the University Park campus. The university’s athletics teams compete in Division I of the NCAA and are collectively known as the Penn State Nittany Lions, competing in the Big Ten Conference for most sports. Penn State students, alumni, faculty and coaches have received a total of 54 Olympic medals.

Early years

The school was sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society and founded as a degree-granting institution on February 22, 1855, by Pennsylvania’s state legislature as the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania. The use of “college” or “university” was avoided because of local prejudice against such institutions as being impractical in their courses of study. Centre County, Pennsylvania, became the home of the new school when James Irvin of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, donated 200 acres (0.8 km2) of land – the first of 10,101 acres (41 km^2) the school would eventually acquire. In 1862, the school’s name was changed to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, Pennsylvania selected the school in 1863 to be the state’s sole land-grant college. The school’s name changed to the Pennsylvania State College in 1874; enrollment fell to 64 undergraduates the following year as the school tried to balance purely agricultural studies with a more classic education.

George W. Atherton became president of the school in 1882, and broadened the curriculum. Shortly after he introduced engineering studies, Penn State became one of the ten largest engineering schools in the nation. Atherton also expanded the liberal arts and agriculture programs, for which the school began receiving regular appropriations from the state in 1887. A major road in State College has been named in Atherton’s honor. Additionally, Penn State’s Atherton Hall, a well-furnished and centrally located residence hall, is named not after George Atherton himself, but after his wife, Frances Washburn Atherton. His grave is in front of Schwab Auditorium near Old Main, marked by an engraved marble block in front of his statue.

Early 20th century

In the years that followed, Penn State grew significantly, becoming the state’s largest grantor of baccalaureate degrees and reaching an enrollment of 5,000 in 1936. Around that time, a system of commonwealth campuses was started by President Ralph Dorn Hetzel to provide an alternative for Depression-era students who were economically unable to leave home to attend college.

In 1953, President Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, sought and won permission to elevate the school to university status as The Pennsylvania State University. Under his successor Eric A. Walker (1956–1970), the university acquired hundreds of acres of surrounding land, and enrollment nearly tripled. In addition, in 1967, the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, a college of medicine and hospital, was established in Hershey with a $50 million gift from the Hershey Trust Company.

Modern era

In the 1970s, the university became a state-related institution. As such, it now belongs to the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. In 1975, the lyrics in Penn State’s alma mater song were revised to be gender-neutral in honor of International Women’s Year; the revised lyrics were taken from the posthumously-published autobiography of the writer of the original lyrics, Fred Lewis Pattee, and Professor Patricia Farrell acted as a spokesperson for those who wanted the change.

In 1989, the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport joined ranks with the university, and in 2000, so did the Dickinson School of Law. The university is now the largest in Pennsylvania. To offset the lack of funding due to the limited growth in state appropriations to Penn State, the university has concentrated its efforts on philanthropy.

Research

Penn State is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. Over 10,000 students are enrolled in the university’s graduate school (including the law and medical schools), and over 70,000 degrees have been awarded since the school was founded in 1922.

Penn State’s research and development expenditure has been on the rise in recent years. For fiscal year 2013, according to institutional rankings of total research expenditures for science and engineering released by the National Science Foundation , Penn State stood second in the nation, behind only Johns Hopkins University and tied with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , in the number of fields in which it is ranked in the top ten. Overall, Penn State ranked 17th nationally in total research expenditures across the board. In 12 individual fields, however, the university achieved rankings in the top ten nationally. The fields and sub-fields in which Penn State ranked in the top ten are materials (1st), psychology (2nd), mechanical engineering (3rd), sociology (3rd), electrical engineering (4th), total engineering (5th), aerospace engineering (8th), computer science (8th), agricultural sciences (8th), civil engineering (9th), atmospheric sciences (9th), and earth sciences (9th). Moreover, in eleven of these fields, the university has repeated top-ten status every year since at least 2008. For fiscal year 2011, the National Science Foundation reported that Penn State had spent $794.846 million on R&D and ranked 15th among U.S. universities and colleges in R&D spending.

For the 2008–2009 fiscal year, Penn State was ranked ninth among U.S. universities by the National Science Foundation, with $753 million in research and development spending for science and engineering. During the 2015–2016 fiscal year, Penn State received $836 million in research expenditures.

The Applied Research Lab (ARL), located near the University Park campus, has been a research partner with the Department of Defense since 1945 and conducts research primarily in support of the United States Navy. It is the largest component of Penn State’s research efforts statewide, with over 1,000 researchers and other staff members.

The Materials Research Institute was created to coordinate the highly diverse and growing materials activities across Penn State’s University Park campus. With more than 200 faculty in 15 departments, 4 colleges, and 2 Department of Defense research laboratories, MRI was designed to break down the academic walls that traditionally divide disciplines and enable faculty to collaborate across departmental and even college boundaries. MRI has become a model for this interdisciplinary approach to research, both within and outside the university. Dr. Richard E. Tressler was an international leader in the development of high-temperature materials. He pioneered high-temperature fiber testing and use, advanced instrumentation and test methodologies for thermostructural materials, and design and performance verification of ceramics and composites in high-temperature aerospace, industrial, and energy applications. He was founding director of the Center for Advanced Materials (CAM), which supported many faculty and students from the College of Earth and Mineral Science, the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering, the Materials Research Laboratory and the Applied Research Laboratories at Penn State on high-temperature materials. His vision for Interdisciplinary research played a key role in creating the Materials Research Institute, and the establishment of Penn State as an acknowledged leader among major universities in materials education and research.

The university was one of the founding members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), a partnership that includes 17 research-led universities in the United States, Asia, and Europe. The network provides funding, facilitates collaboration between universities, and coordinates exchanges of faculty members and graduate students among institutions. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier is a former vice-chair of the WUN.

The Pennsylvania State University Libraries were ranked 14th among research libraries in North America in the 2003–2004 survey released by The Chronicle of Higher Education. The university’s library system began with a 1,500-book library in Old Main. In 2009, its holdings had grown to 5.2 million volumes, in addition to 500,000 maps, five million microforms, and 180,000 films and videos.

The university’s College of Information Sciences and Technology is the home of CiteSeerX, an open-access repository and search engine for scholarly publications. The university is also the host to the Radiation Science & Engineering Center, which houses the oldest operating university research reactor. Additionally, University Park houses the Graduate Program in Acoustics, the only freestanding acoustics program in the United States. The university also houses the Center for Medieval Studies, a program that was founded to research and study the European Middle Ages, and the Center for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE), one of the first centers established to research postsecondary education.