Although the details of sunspot generation are still a matter of research, it appears that sunspots are the visible counterparts of magnetic flux tubes in the Sun’s convective zone that get “wound up” by differential rotation. If the stress on the tubes reaches a certain limit, they curl up like a rubber band and puncture the Sun’s surface. Convection is inhibited at the puncture points; the energy flux from the Sun’s interior decreases; and with it surface temperature.
Although they are at temperatures of roughly 3,000–4,500 K (2,700–4,200 °C), the contrast with the surrounding material at about 5,780 K (5,500 °C) leaves them clearly visible as dark spots, as the luminous intensity of a heated black body (closely approximated by the photosphere) is proportional to the fourth power of its temperature. If the sunspot were isolated from the surrounding photosphere it would be brighter than the Moon. Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the Sun and can be as small as 16 kilometers and as large as 160,000 kilometers in diameter, making the larger ones visible from Earth without the aid of a telescope. They may also travel at relative speeds (“proper motions”) of a few hundred meters per second when they first emerge onto the solar photosphere.
Manifesting intense magnetic activity, sunspots host secondary phenomena such as coronal loops (prominences) and reconnection events. Most solar flares and coronal mass ejections originate in 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.
The sunspot itself can be divided into two parts:
1) The central umbra, which is the darkest part, where the magnetic field is approximately vertical (normal to the Sun’s surface).
2) The surrounding penumbra, which is lighter, where the magnetic field is more inclined.
Magnetic pressure should tend to remove field concentrations, causing the sunspots to disperse, but sunspot lifetimes are measured in days or even weeks. In 2001, observations from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) using sound waves travelling below the Sun’s photosphere (local helioseismology) were used to develop a three-dimensional image of the internal structure below sunspots; these observations show that there is a powerful downdraft underneath each sunspot, forming a rotating vortex that concentrates the magnetic field. Sunspots can thus be thought of as self-perpetuating storms, analogous in some ways to terrestrial hurricanes.
The earliest surviving record of sunspot observation dates from 364 BC, based on comments by Chinese astronomer Gan De in a star catalogue. By 28 BC, Chinese astronomers were regularly recording sunspot observations in official imperial records. The first clear mention of a sunspot in Western literature, around 300 BC, was by the ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus, student of Plato and Aristotle and successor to the latter. A more recent sunspot observation was made on 17 March 807 AD by the Benedictine monk Adelmus, who observed a large sunspot that was visible for eight days; however, Adelmus incorrectly concluded he was observing a transit of Mercury. A large sunspot was also seen at the time of Charlemagne’s death in 813 AD. Sunspot activity in 1129 was described by John of Worcester, and Averroes provided a description of sunspots later in the 12th century; however, these observations were also misinterpreted as planetary transits, until Galileo gave the correct explanation in 1612.
Sunspots were first observed telescopically in late 1610 by the English astronomer Thomas Harriot and Frisian astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius, who published a description in June 1611. At the latter time, Galileo had been showing sunspots to astronomers in Rome, and Christoph Scheiner had probably been observing the spots for two or three months using an improved helioscope of his own design. The ensuing priority dispute between Galileo and Scheiner, neither of whom knew of the Fabricius’ work, was thus as pointless as it was bitter.
Sunspots had some importance in the debate over the nature of the Solar System. They showed that the Sun rotated, and their comings and goings showed that the Sun changed, contrary to Aristotle (who taught that all celestial bodies were perfect, unchanging spheres).
Rudolf Wolf studied the historical record in an attempt to establish a database on past cyclic variations. His database extended only to 1700, although the technology and techniques for careful solar observations were first available in 1610. Gustav Spörer later suggested a 70-year period before 1716 in which sunspots were rarely observed as the reason for Wolf’s inability to extend the cycles into the 17th century.
Sunspots were rarely recorded during the second part of 17th century. Later analysis revealed the problem not to be a lack of observational data but included references to negative observations. Building upon Spörer’s earlier work, Edward Maunder suggested that the Sun had changed from a period in which sunspots all but disappeared from the solar surface to a renewal of sunspot cycles starting in about 1700. Adding to this understanding of the absence of solar cycles were observations of aurorae, which were absent at the same time. Even the lack of a solar corona during solar eclipses was noted prior to 1715. The period of low sunspot activity from 1645 to 1717 is known as the “Maunder Minimum”.