I've been posting sporadically on how sunspots are starting to come back to the Sun, and I'm glad to see a new group sprouted up recently... and it's a monster:
These images are from SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. The orange one is in visible light, and the sunspots are pretty obvious. The green one shows the Sun in the far ultraviolet, and you can see the sunspots are pretty intense, blasting out high-energy light. Sunspots are indicators of magnetic activity, and the intense magnetic field can accelerate plasma (ionized gas) to high energies.
Just so's you know, a hundred Earths could fit across this image, so that oughta give you an idea of just how big these blemishes are.
What this means is that the Sun is becoming active again. You can see it better in this video I put together using SOHO animations. These are real SOHO observations. Note that some of the data are missing so the Sun's rotation is a bit jerky, and that you can see that data dropouts and other problems plague these sort of observations. Oh-- actually, another group popped up on the Sun earlier, too, and you can see those in the visible light data.
You can actually see the plasma flowing along the magnetic field lines in the latter part of the video.
Right now, the Sun is struggling to climb back up to the peak of its magnetic cycle, which will probably occur in 2013 or later, given how slow this has been -- which you might want to keep in mind if some crackpot or scammer is trying to sell you on the idea that solar activity will destroy the Earth in 2012. When the Sun is at its peak, the magnetic field is at its strongest, and we see the most sunspots. However, the strongest solar flares and other explosive events tend not to happen until well after the cycle peaks, so it'll be late 2013 or 2014 before we see the most vigorous activity, if the Sun holds to its previous behavior.
Again, people selling you on 2012 disasters generally have a very tenuous grasp on science. The less you know the better for them.
I expect we'll be seeing more and more sunspots now as time goes by. It's nice to see this happening, as it adds to the activity seen in December, and ends a long period of minimal sunspots -- heck, for a long time, there were none at all. Boring. Now we can look forward to some exciting action again... just in time for SDO to launch, too!
[P.S. If anyone can tell me why the first few frames of my uploaded videos turn gray sometimes, that would be nice. I don't know whether to curse iMovie, Flash, YouTube, or all three.]
Image credit: SOHO (ESA and NASA)