January 18, 2014 - "I've been a solar physicist for 30 years, and I've never seen anything quite like this," says Richard Harrison, head of space physics at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
He shows me recent footage captured by spacecraft that have their sights trained on our star. The Sun
is revealed in exquisite detail, but its face is strangely featureless.
"If you want to go back to see when the Sun
was this inactive... you've got to go back about 100 years," he says.
This solar lull is baffling scientists, because right now the Sun
should be awash with activity.
It has reached its solar maximum, the point in its 11-year cycle where activity
is at a peak.
This giant ball of plasma should be peppered with sunspots, exploding with flares and spewing out huge clouds of charged particles into space in the form of coronal mass ejections.
should be at the peak of its activity - bursting with flares and coronal mass ejections
But apart from the odd event, like some recent solar flares, it has been very quiet. And this damp squib of a maximum follows a solar minimum - the period when the Sun's activity troughs - that was longer and lower than scientists expected.
"It's completely taken me and many other solar scientists by surprise," says Dr Lucie Green, from University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.
The drop off in activity is happening surprisingly quickly, and scientists are now watching closely to see if it will continue to plummet.
"It could mean a very, very inactive star, it would feel like the Sun
is asleep... a very dormant ball of gas at the centre of our Solar
System," explains Dr Green.
This, though, would certainly not be the first time this has happened.
During the latter half of the 17th Century, the Sun
went through an extremely quiet phase - a period called the Maunder Minimum.
Historical records reveal that sunspots virtually disappeared during this time.
Dr Green says: "There is a very strong hint that the Sun
is acting in the same way now as it did in the run-up to the Maunder Minimum."
Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, from the University of Reading, thinks there is a significant chance that the Sun
could become increasingly quiet.
An analysis of ice-cores, which hold a long-term record of solar activity, suggests the decline in activity is the fastest that has been seen in 10,000 years.
"It's an unusually rapid decline," explains Prof Lockwood.
"We estimate that within about 40 years or so there is a 10% to 20% - nearer 20% - probability that we'll be back in Maunder Minimum
The era of solar inactivity in the 17th Century coincided with a period of bitterly cold winters in Europe.
Londoners enjoyed frost fairs on the Thames after it froze over, snow cover across the continent increased, the Baltic Sea iced over - the conditions were so harsh, some describe it as a mini-Ice Age.
And Prof Lockwood believes that this regional effect could have been in part driven by the dearth of activity on the Sun, and may happen again if our star continues to wane.