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Date: March 22, 2013
Time: 1:00 - 2:30 PM EST
Location: Wallops Flight Facility
An irregular cycle, averaging about 11 years in length, during which the number of sunspots (and of their associated outbursts) rises and then drops again. Like the sunspots, the cycle is magnetic in nature, and the polar magnetic field of the Sun also reverses each solar cycle.
The month(s) during the solar cycle when the 12-month mean of monthly average sunspot numbers reaches a maximum.
The month(s) during the solar cycle when the 12-month mean of monthly average sunspot numbers reaches minimum.
Every 11 years on average the sun reaches a peak period of activity called "Solar Maximum" or "Solar Max" for short. This is followed 5-6 years later, by a period of relative quiet called "Solar Minimum". During Solar Max, there are many sunspots, prominences, and solar storms (solar flares, and coronal mass ejections), all of which can affect communications and technology on Earth. During solar max there can be hundreds of sunspots, formed when magnetic field lines just below the Sun's surface become twisted and poke through the Solar Photosphere.
Solar storms, generated above these sunspot groups blast huge quantities of EM and particle radiation into the solar system. When headed our way, these storms can disrupt radio communications, compromise electrical power systems, damage sensitive satellite electronics, and degrade their orbits, and cause navigational equipment to make mistakes. Astronauts outside of Earth's protective atmosphere or magnetosphere can be endangered by radiation from these events. The effects of these solar storms reach throughout our entire solar system impacting planets, moons, comets and asteroids, and even the boundaries on the solar system itsself. Fortunately, our planet is protected from the harmful effects of the radiation and plasma by our atmosphere and an invisible magnetic field, our magnetosphere. We are also protected by the many spacecraft, telescopes and scientists who monitor the flow of radiation in space (space weather) in order to provide warning for those of us on Earth; a Space Weather Alert.
The largest, single, challenge for astronauts traveling to Mars will be to overcome exposure to solar storms and radiation.