Surprises from the Sun's South Pole

Feb 19, 2007
Surprises from the Sun's South Pole
A joint ESA/NASA mission, Ulysses (named after the hero of Greek legend) is charting the unknown reaches of space above and below the poles of the Sun. Credits: ESA

Although very close to the minimum of its 11-year sunspot cycle, the Sun showed that it is still capable of producing a series of remarkably energetic outbursts - ESA-NASA Ulysses mission revealed.

In keeping with the first and second south polar passes (in 1994 and 2000), the latest high-latitude excursion of the joint ESA-NASA Ulysses mission has already produced some surprises. In mid-December 2006, although very close to the minimum of its 11-year sunspot cycle, the Sun showed that it is still capable of producing a series of remarkably energetic outbursts.

Variations of the coronal temperature measured with the SWICS instrument on board ESA-NASA’s Ulysses from December 1990 to January 2007. Solar wind flow from coronal holes is characterized by high solar wind speed (700-800 kilometres per second) and low coronal temperature (1 – 1.3 million Kelvin). Credits: R. von Steiger and G. Gloeckler

The solar storms, which were confined to the equatorial regions, produced quite intense bursts of particle radiation that were clearly observed by near-Earth satellites. Surprisingly, similar increases in radiation were detected by the instruments on board Ulysses, even though it was three times as far away and almost over the south solar pole. "Particle events of this kind were seen during the second polar passes in 2000 and 2001, at solar maximum," said Richard Marsden, ESA's Ulysses Project Scientist and Mission Manager. "We certainly didn't expect to see them at high latitudes at solar minimum!"

Scientists are busy trying to understand how the charged particles made it all the way to the poles. "Charged particles have to follow magnetic field lines, and the magnetic field pattern of the Sun near solar minimum ought to make it much more difficult for the particles to move in latitude," said Marsden.

One of the puzzles remaining from the first high-latitude passes in 1994 and 1995 has to do with the temperature of the Sun's poles. When Ulysses first passed over the south and then the north solar pole near solar minimum, it measured the temperatures of the large polar coronal holes.

"Surprisingly, the temperature in the north polar coronal hole was about 7 to 8 percent lower compared with the south polar coronal hole," said Professor George Gloeckler, Principal Investigator for the Solar Wind Ion Composition Spectrometer (SWICS) on board Ulysses.

"We couldn't tell then whether this was simply due to progressive cooling of both polar coronal holes as the Sun was approaching its minimum level of activity in 1996, or whether this was an indication of a permanently cooler north pole."

Now, as Ulysses again passes over the large polar coronal holes of the Sun at solar minimum we will finally have the answer. Recent SWICS observations show that the average temperature of the southern polar coronal hole at the current solar minimum is as low as it was 10 years ago in the northern polar coronal hole. "This implies that the asymmetry between north and south has switched with the change of the magnetic polarity of the Sun," said Gloeckler. The definitive proof will come when Ulysses measures the temperature of the north polar coronal during the next 15 months.

Source: European Space Agency

Explore further: Planck: Gravitational waves remain elusive

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Image: Solar coronal hole welcomes the new year

Jan 05, 2015

There were no fireworks on the sun to welcome in the New Year and only a few C-class flares during the last day of 2014. Instead, the sun starts 2015 with an enormous coronal hole near the south pole. This ...

Recommended for you

Planck: Gravitational waves remain elusive

Jan 30, 2015

Despite earlier reports of a possible detection, a joint analysis of data from ESA's Planck satellite and the ground-based BICEP2 and Keck Array experiments has found no conclusive evidence of primordial ...

What's happening in the universe right now?

Jan 30, 2015

There are some topics that get a little frustrating in their pedantry, but can really draw attention to the grand scope and mechanics in our Universe. This is definitely one of them.

The tell-tale signs of a galactic merger

Jan 29, 2015

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured this striking view of spiral galaxy NGC 7714. This galaxy has drifted too close to another nearby galaxy and the dramatic interaction has twisted its spiral ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.