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Solar scientists say they've spotted the first conclusive evidence that the next 11-year cycle of solar activity has begun.

It's a sunspot, located at 27 degrees north latitude on the sun's sphere. That relatively high latitude, plus the negative polarity observers detected, qualify it as the first spot of the new solar cycle.

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From here, scientists say, we can expect a slow acceleration in sunspot counts -- and in the frequency of solar storms, leading to a peak sometime in 2011 or 2012.

These solar storms are not just a matter of idle scientific curiosity. Titanic eruptions of solar particles and energy from sunspots can kill communications satellites and threaten spacewalking astronauts. They can also boost radiation exposures of airliner passengers and crews, disrupt radio communications and electrical distribution on the ground, and more.

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Officially, this is the start of Solar Cycle 24, numbered from the first consistent observations in the 1700s.  The new sunspot comes while spots left over from Cycle 23 are still appearing on the sun's surface, much closer to the equator - typical of late-cycle events.

Last April, solar scientists predicted the new cycle would begin in March 2008, well after the original forecast of Autumn 2006. Generally, the earlier a cycle begins, the stronger it is expected to be. In this case, scientists were evenly split on whether Cycle 24 would be a strong one, or a weak one, but neither camp expects an extreme cycle in either direction.

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