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In very rough terms, the sun's activity ebbs and flows in an 11-year cycle, with flares, coronal mass ejections and other energetic phenomena peaking at what is called solar maximum and bottoming out at solar minimum. Sunspots, markers of magnetic activity on the sun's surface, provide a visual proxy to mark the cycle's evolution, appearing in droves at maximum and all but disappearing at minimum. But the behavior of our host star is not as predictable as all that—the most recent solar minimum was surprisingly deep and long, finally bottoming out around late 2008 or so.

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