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 3D image of the Sun's south pole. Credit: Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft.

Tales of Brave Ulysses
Jul 01, 2009

The end of an 18 year mission in polar orbit around the Sun.

"You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever,
But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the Sun."

--- Eric Clapton and Martin Sharp

June 30, 2009 was the last operational day for the Ulysses spacecraft. Launched from the space shuttle Discovery on October 6, 1990, Ulysses was designed to study the Sun's heliosphere and its polar environment.

Ulysses was sent out to Jupiter, where it performed a gravity boost maneuver that also sent it upward, above the plane of the ecliptic and back toward the Sun. The resulting orbit placed it in a heliocentric ellipse that takes it from over 800 million kilometers at aphelion (greatest distance), to less than 200 million kilometers at perihelion (closest approach), so that every six years Ulysses makes a pass over both poles of the Sun. Between its launch date and its mission end date, Ulysses will have traveled over nine billion kilometers.

One of the more interesting encounters during its long journey was with comet McNaught out near the planet Mars. Ulysses found that the solar wind speed was being changed by McNaught's ion tail. The speed of ion flux was reduced from approximately 700 kilometers per second to 350 kilometers per second. Mission specialists were surprised by the fact that the solar wind could be affected by such a small object at such a great distance from the Sun.

Another observation was that the amount of dust blowing in to the Solar System had increased substantially over the last few years, more than triple what it once was early in 1997. The Solar System is constantly bombarded by dust particles, but because the Sun's magnetic field is so strong, most of it is deflected around a zone shaped like an elongated bubble that extends outward well beyond the orbit of Pluto.

However, the Sun goes through a cycle of electromagnetic fluctuation that lasts 22 years, so the force field is most likely reduced during times of low solar activity, allowing more charged particles to pass through. In fact, there are times when the Sun seems to funnel ionized interstellar dust along a localized region of increased electric current flow at the poles.

In 1994, Ulysses found that the temperature of the coronal hole at the north pole was several percent lower than the temperature of the south pole coronal opening. During its last pass back over the poles, after the 11 year reversal of the solar magnetic field, the temperature variation was found to have reversed. Could this be an indication of the electric current flow magnitude?

The current flow out of the Sun is balanced by the current flow into it, so perhaps the changes in temperature are indicative of the magnetic field polarity and the strength of the electric field. If the Sun is connected to the rest of the galaxy by Birkeland current "transmission lines," then fluctuations in its electrical characteristics are most likely demonstrating the fluctuations in current arriving from the Milky Way's electric generator. Since the magnetic field aligns charged particles, thereby reducing their random motion, regions with greater field alignment will appear cooler than regions of lower intensity.

Another surprise for the NASA and ESA teams operating the spacecraft was the extremely energetic events detected on the Sun during its time of solar minimum. The Sun's periods of high and low energy mean that large solar flares or coronal mass ejections are not supposed to take place during times of low activity. However, near the end of 2007 when the Sun was supposed to be at its most quiescent, Ulysses found solar storms—intense outbursts of radiation in the form of charged particles—erupting from the south pole.

Richard Marsden, ESA's Ulysses Project Scientist and Mission Manager wrote at the time: "Particle events of this kind were seen during the second polar passes in 2000 and 2001, at solar maximum. We certainly didn't expect to see them at high latitudes at solar minimum! 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 [from the equator]."

The legacy of Ulysses should be an increased awareness that current models of solar behavior suffer from a lack of electrical theory being applied to the observations. The fact that there have been no interpretations of the data in the light of electric fields and current flow into and out of the Sun—other than an acknowledgement that "streams" of particles and "blowing" dust are moving through the system in unexpected ways—means that the gulf between consensus views of the Sun and the Electric Universe viewpoint will remain for the time being. More information isn't the answer. The answer is a better model in which to fit that data.

Stephen Smith



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