Ulysses exits with insight into our next solar cycle

“Ulysses ends its career after revealing that the magnetic field emanating from the sun’s poles is much weaker than previously observed.  This could mean the upcoming solar maximum period will be less intense than in recent history. “

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International Mission Studying Sun to Conclude

June 12, 2008

PASADENA, Calif. – After more than 17 years of pioneering solar science, a joint NASA and European Space Agency mission to study the sun will end on or about July 1.

The Ulysses spacecraft has endured for almost four times its expected lifespan. However, the spacecraft will cease operations because of a decline in power produced by its onboard generators. Ulysses has forever changed the way scientists view the sun and its effect on the surrounding space. Mission results and the science legacy it leaves behind were reviewed today at a media briefing at European Space Agency Headquarters in Paris.

“The main objective of Ulysses was to study, from every angle, the heliosphere, which is the vast bubble in space carved out by the solar wind,” said Ed Smith, Ulysses project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Over its long life, Ulysses redefined our knowledge of the heliosphere and went on to answer questions about our solar neighborhood we did not know to ask.”

Ulysses ends its career after revealing that the magnetic field emanating from the sun’s poles is much weaker than previously observed.  This could mean the upcoming solar maximum period will be less intense than in recent history.

“Over almost two decades of science observations by Ulysses, we have learned a lot more than we expected about our star and the way it interacts with the space surrounding it,” said Richard Marsden, Ulysses project scientist and mission manager for the European Space Agency (ESA). “Solar missions have appeared in recent years, but Ulysses is still unique today. Its special point of view over the sun’s poles never has been covered by any other mission.”

The spacecraft and its suite of 10 instruments had to be highly sensitive, yet robust enough to withstand some of the most extreme conditions in the solar system, including intense radiation while passing by the giant planet Jupiter’s north pole. The encounter occurred while injecting the mission into its orbit over the sun’s poles.

“Ulysses has been a challenging mission since launch,” said Ed Massey, Ulysses project manager at JPL. “Its success required the cooperation and intellect of engineers and scientists from around the world.”

Ulysses was the first mission to survey the environment in space above and below the poles of the sun in the four dimensions of space and time. It showed the sun’s magnetic field is carried into the solar system in a more complicated manner than previously believed. Particles expelled by the sun from low latitudes can climb to high latitudes and vice versa, sometimes unexpectedly finding their way out to the planets. Ulysses also studied dust flowing into our solar system from deep space, and showed it was 30 times more abundant than astronomers suspected. In addition, the spacecraft detected helium atoms from deep space and confirmed the universe does not contain enough matter to eventually halt its expansion.

Ulysses collected and transmitted science data to Earth during its 8.6 billion kilometer journey (5.4 billion miles). As the power supply weakened during the years, engineers devised methods to conserve energy. The power has dwindled to the point where thruster fuel soon will freeze in the spacecraft’s pipelines.

“When the last bits of data finally arrive, it surely will be tough to say goodbye,” said Nigel Angold, ESA’s Ulysses mission operations manager. “But any sadness I might feel will pale in comparison to the pride of working on such a magnificent mission. Although operations will be ending, scientific discoveries from Ulysses data will continue for years to come.”

Ulysses was launched aboard space shuttle Discovery on Oct. 6, 1990. From Earth orbit, it was propelled toward Jupiter by solid-fuel rocket motors. Ulysses passed Jupiter on Feb. 8, 1992. The giant planet’s gravity then bent the spacecraft’s flight path downward and away from the ecliptic plane to place the spacecraft in a final orbit around the sun that would take it past our star’s north and south poles.

The spacecraft was provided by ESA. NASA provided the launch vehicle and upper stage boosters. The U.S. Department of Energy supplied a radioisotope thermoelectric generator to provide power to the spacecraft. Science instruments were provided by both U.S. and European investigators. The spacecraft is operated from JPL by a joint NASA/ESA team. More information about the joint NASA/ESA Ulysses mission is available at http://ulysses.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.esa.int/esaSC/SEMPEQUG3HF_index_0_ov.html

30 thoughts on “Ulysses exits with insight into our next solar cycle

  1. I see another cycle 23 Tiny Tim all the way to the left at the equator. Or is this just an old one? Cycle 23 just does not want to go away.

  2. I wonder what Leif Svalgaard thinks of this weakening solar polar magnetic field.

  3. Even crazed GW has it’s upside. I have a whole new knowledge of many things because of it.
    I did of course know that every cloud has a silver lining; but I sure underestimated the brightness under this one.
    The dark patch, however (that mankind can be so cynical, stupid, selfish, self-centered and evil of ego) does kind of cancel out the shine, though.

  4. Just a thought, but it might be interesting to see temperatures (satelite preferably) superimposed on that chart…
    From recollection, they look rather similar, no?

  5. Went to the link given above and the first article stated
    Jan. 14, 2008: Consider it a case of exquisite timing. Just last week, solar physicists announced the beginning of a new solar cycle and now, Jan. 14th, the Ulysses spacecraft is flying over a key region of solar activity–the sun’s North Pole. – a bit premature.
    Further down the article it states
    Ulysses has flown over the sun’s poles three times before in 1994-95, 2000-01 and 2007. Each flyby revealed something interesting and mysterious, but this one may be most interesting of all.
    This would imply that the comment about the magnetic field emanating from the poles refers to the 1994/95 passage as the 2000/01 passage was at a solar maximum. However this was about a year before the sunspot minimum so I wonder how valid the statement is.

  6. Anthony,
    There’s something I’d like to try. Where can I find the source data for that graph? There’s plenty available at the JPL site but I don’t want to have to download all of it. If it’s of one of the datasets at JPL, could you tell me which one?

  7. Heh, Leif predicted it. Now, what does it mean for the next cycle?

  8. Anthony, re: graph source data
    I think I may have found it at NOAA except that its spread over a large number of PDF files (one for every week). Do you know of a place where it might all be collected into one document?

  9. IMO this is NASA’s real mission. To explore, to gather information. Let everyone see the data, let the entire scientific community do the analysis. Totally objective, without bias.
    /dream off
    Oh, well…(

  10. Leif’s posted a link to his paper about this over on Climateaudit.org in the Svalgaard #7 thread.

  11. This could mean the upcoming solar maximum period will be less intense than in recent history.
    Does this mean what it sounds like?

  12. Anthony
    Where do you get the data for the graph? I can’t seem to find it on the web or your site, but it seems up to date. Would like to track it and play with it.

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  14. NASA’s real mission is to provide high paying jobs to keep property taxes up.
    But what’s new?
    I tell you it’s treason
    to give the real reasons.
    It’s always been so
    so the sheep will not know.

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  16. Timely post given that it’s Bloomsday!
    REPLY: I had to look this one up. – Anthony
    The day involves a range of cultural activities including Ulysses readings and dramatisations, pub crawls and general merriment, much of it hosted by the James Joyce Centre in North Great George’s Street. (in Dublin)

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  18. As kim has noted, the Ulysses measurement was predicted by me. In our solar cycle 24 prediction paper http://www.leif.org/research/Cycle%2024%20Smallest%20100%20years.pdf submitted back in 2004 we concluded:
    With weaker polar fields, the interplanetary magnetic fields that the Ulysses space probe will measure during its next polar passes in 2007–2008 are therefore expected to be significantly lower than during the 1994–1995 polar passes.
    No no surprise, things just going according to plan 🙂
    It likely means that solar cycle 24 will be a small cycle. But, this was already known. Ulysses does not bring anything new to that table as the polar fields have been measured directly in real time since 1976 and therefore were available in 2004 [and now for that matter]. In the last three years they have not changed significantly and thus still predict a small cycle.

  19. “Pierre Gosselin said: “Here this graphic shows the Arctic was warmer back in 1930-49 than it was in 1990-2007.”
    Hey Pierre, is there an English version somewhere? – Jack Koenig, Editor”
    that German link cited by Pierre leads to an English site by Dr. Arnd Bernaerts, offering a completely different explanation of Arctic Warming: changing the heat capacity relationships between ocean water and air through Naval warfare activities… has anybody followed this extensive trail?

  20. “we predict that the approaching solar
    cycle 24 (2011 maximum) will have a peak smoothed
    monthly sunspot number of 75 ± 8,”
    The cut for grades of A has not been established as yet, but this is looking rather like a B+ or lower, grading on a curve.

  21. The trick is to not get the solar physicists conflated with the observational denialists in the warming community.
    I agree with Lief that the sun is going according to prediction. What remains to be seen is whether the planet continues cool, as it should according to other longstanding predictions (see Svensmark and others), or if global warming returns, as, I suspect, Lief expects.
    It is not a small point that cooling began a decade ago, even throwing out ’98 as your benchmark, but it suggests that climate sensitivity to CO2 is smaller than the alarmists have been letting on if it can be overcome by “insignificant” changes in solar output.

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