16 September 1994
The pass over the Sun's south pole currently being carried out by ESA's probe Ulysses(*) has so far been a total success and has already yielded a first clutch of surprise results concerning this unexplored region.
Scientists at ESA's space research and technology centre in Noordwijk (the Netherlands) this morning gave a very positive account of the South polar pass phase, which started in June and will be completed in November. In particular they concluded that the south polar region displayed unexpected magnetic and dynamic characteristics; this probably means that the thinking on the magnetic structure of the Sun will have to be revised. The first thing that surprised the scientists was the low cosmic radiation activity above the south pole and the remarkable apparent absence of a south magnetic pole.
Richard Marsden, ESA's project scientist, explained: "We expected the Sun to have a relatively simple magnetic field, such as the Earth's or that of a magnetised iron bar. We thought we were going to find a local increase in the field's intensity. But the probe did not detect any such thing and all the evidence so far suggests that the Sun has no south magnetic pole.
Could it be that the Sun has no south magnetic pole? Or is one suddenly going to appear before Ulysses completes its pass? These are some of the questions exercising the minds of the team of scientists working on the project, who are keenly looking forward to comparing these results with those that will be coming through next year when the probe passes over the Sun's north geographic pole.
It is however already manifestly clear that the structure of the solar magnetic field in the southern polar region is not as predicted by the models. In particular, the instruments on board Ulysses have detected a new type of very slowly varying electromagnetic waves, with oscillation periods of 10 to 20 hours. The experts' theory is that this is due to an unexpected phenomenon that conveys the solar magnetic field into space through the solar wind.
It is still far too early to say what effect these new findings are going to have on our overall understanding of the Sun and the interplanetary wind it generates. A vast volume of data running into billions of bits, all of it of great scientific value, has been acquired during the first part of this polar pass. Detailed analysis is going to take many months. However, one thing about which there is no doubt is the complexity of the phenomena observed, which involve the combined effects of the solar wind, magnetic field, electromagnetic waves and fast-moving bursts of particles. Further insights will probably be gained when Ulysses passes over the Sun's north pole in 1995 and, if the mission is extended, when it makes two further polar passes in 2000-2001, during a period of intense magnetic activity.
(*) Ulysses is a joint ESA/NASA mission. ESA developed the probe and is contributing an estimated ECU 170 million up to 1995 to its in-fl operation. European research laboratories provided half of the scie instruments. NASA provided the other half of the experiments flown a radio-isotopic power generator and the launch; it is also maintain day-to-day communications with the probe via its dedicated antennas.