INFO 13-1998: Ulysses comes full circle, before revisiting the Sun's poles
15 April 1998On 17 April, after travelling for more than seven years and covering 3.8 billion kilometres, the space probe Ulysses will complete its first orbit of the Sun. Built in Europe for the European Space Agency, this intrepid explorer has ventured into regions never before visited by any spacecraft. It has journeyed far away from the realm of the planets and gone over the poles of the Sun.
From its unique perspective, Ulysses has provided scientists with the very first all-round map of the heliosphere, the huge bubble in space filled by the Sun's wind. The Earth swims deep inside the heliosphere, and gusts and shocks in the solar wind can harm satellites, power supplies and ommunications. They may also affect our planet's weather. A better grasp of the solar weather in the heliosphere is therefore one of the major aims of ESA's science programme.
In a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA, Ulysses was launched towards Jupiter in October 1990 by the US space shuttle Discovery. Arriving in February 1992, Ulysses stole energy from the giant planet in a slingshot manoeuvre and was propelled back towards the Sun in an elongated orbit almost at right angles to the ecliptic plane, where the Earth and other planets circle the Sun.
"This month Ulysses returns to the point in space where its out-of-ecliptic journey began, but Jupiter isn't there," explains Richard Marsden, ESA's project scientist for Ulysses. "Following its own inexorable path around the Sun, Jupiter is far away on the opposite side of the Solar System. So Ulysses' course will not be changed a second time. The spacecraft is now in effect a man-made comet, forever bound into a 6-year polar orbit around the Sun."
Ulysses now starts its second orbit. It will travel over the poles of the Sun in 2000-2001 just as the count of dark sunspots is expected to reach a maximum. With its operational life extended for the Ulysses Solar Maximum Mission, the spacecraft will find the heliosphere much stormier than during its first orbit.
Discoveries so far
Like its mythical namesake, Ulysses has already had an eventful voyage of discovery. Its unique trajectory has provided the scientific teams with a new perspective, from far out in space and especially in the previously unknown regions of the heliosphere over the Sun's poles.
Passing within 9.8 degrees of the polar axis, the highly slanted orbit took Ulysses to solar latitudes greater than 70 degrees for a total of 234 days -- first in the southern hemisphere and then in the north. Also of great interest was the rapid passage from the south to the north, via the Sun's equatorial region, during which Ulysses covered 160 degrees in solar latitude in less than a year.
Nine onboard experiments have gathered data continuously since launch, for international teams totalling 150 scientists. Some instruments detect the outward-blowing solar wind and its magnetic field, which create the heliosphere. Others record cosmic rays coming in from the Galaxy, which are strongly influenced by the solar wind. Ulysses picks up natural radio signals emitted by the Sun, the planets and the heliosphere itself. Innovative techniques identify alien atoms and dust particles infiltrating the heliosphere from interstellar space. Ulysses is also a key member of a network of interplanetary spacecraft making observations of enigmatic bursts of gamma rays originating in the far reaches of the Universe. New facts about the fast solar wind were among Ulysses' most fundamental discoveries. The typical solar wind emerging from the Sun's equatorial zone is variable but relatively slow, at 350-400 kilometres per second.
The fast wind blows at a steady 750 kilometres per second. It comes from cool regions of the solar atmosphere called coronal holes which (when the Sun is quiet) are close to the poles and fairly small. Yet Ulysses found the fast wind fanning out to fill two-thirds of the volume of the heliosphere. The boundary between the two windstreams is unexpectedly sharp.
The magnetic field of the Sun turns out to be strangely uniform at all latitudes in the heliosphere. Close to the visible surface of the Sun, the magnetic field is strongest over the poles, but this intensification disappears at Ulysses' distance. Apparently magnetic pressure in the solar wind averages out the differences in field strength. On the other hand Ulysses discovered unusually strong magnetic waves in the polar regions.
Another surprise concerns unexpected connections between the polar and equatorial regions. Rhythmic variations in the intensity of energetic particles and cosmic rays, recorded by Ulysses at high latitudes, originate in effects of the Sun's rotation much closer to the equator. Scientists are debating how their picture of the magnetic field in the heliosphere must change, to make sense of the Ulysses observations.
Without this new knowledge of the solar wind's behaviour, and its widespread effects, shocks felt in the Earth's vicinity would remain incomprehensible. For two centuries, sketchy links between sunspots, auroras and magnetic storms have puzzled scientists. Results from Ulysses and other solar spacecraft, including ESA's SOHO and Cluster II, are expected to transform human understanding of solar-terrestrial events. The task is urgent because astronauts and technological systems are becoming ever more vulnerable to the stormy Sun.
After the quiet Sun, a peak of activity
When Ulysses conducted the first-ever investigation of the high-latitude heliosphere, the Sun was quiet, being near the minimum of solar activity. As scientists expected, the circumstances were ideal for revealing the underlying structure of the Sun's atmosphere and the solar wind, in their simplest form. With the first phase of the voyage safely and very productively completed, Ulysses faces a new challenge, as it continues along its unique path.
Obeying a cycle of roughly eleven years, the Sun is once again becoming restless as sunspot activity builds towards the next peak around 2000. When Ulysses revisits the polar regions at that time it will encounter conditions vastly different from those of 1994-95. The international mission of exploration has already given a new and thought-provoking view of the heliosphere. Its findings at solar maximum are guaranteed to do the same, and to give new insights into the gusts and shocks in the solar wind that affect the Earth most severely.
"Gone will be the stable picture dominated by the fast solar wind," Richard Marsden predicts. "Most likely this will have been replaced by variability at all latitudes, with slow and fast wind streams jostling one another for prime position. But what exactly awaits Ulysses remains to be seen. Just like the first orbit, the second is truly a voyage into the unknown."