Spacecraft shoots for the Sun

The European Space Agency and NASA joint spacecraft Ulysses will this week fly by the Sun taking pictures of its North Pole and looking to address some major scientific mysteries.

Launched in Oct. 1990 from the space shuttle Discovery, 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, scientists said in a release.

For example, previous flybys registered the temperature of the Sun's poles. In the previous solar cycle, the magnetic North Pole was about 80,000 degrees or 8% cooler than the south. Why should there be a difference? No one knows. The current flyby may help solve the puzzle because it comes less than a year after a similar South Pole flyby in Feb. 2007.

Ulysses also discovered the sun's high-speed polar wind which can hit a million miles per hour, scientists said. Many researchers believe the sun's poles are central to the 11-year ebb and flow of solar activity. When sunspots break up, their decaying magnetic fields are carried toward the poles by vast currents of plasma. This makes the poles a sort of graveyard for sunspots.

The Ulysses program ultimately is expected to help scientists better understand the Sun. NASA said Ulysses, which flies at a highly inclined orbit of nearly 80° solar latitude, is equipped with a comprehensive range of scientific instruments to help do this. These instruments are able to detect and measure solar wind ions and electrons, magnetic fields, energetic particles, cosmic rays, natural radio and plasma waves, cosmic dust, interstellar neutral gas, solar X-rays and cosmic gamma-ray bursts.

Ulysses mission has been somewhat overshadowed by this weeks MESSENGER historic flyby of the planet Mercury. During this month's Mercury pass the NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft's cameras and other sophisticated, high-technology instruments will take unprecedented images and make the first up-close measurements of the planet since Mariner 10 passed by in 1975.

MESSENGER, launched in 2004, is the first NASA mission sent to orbit Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. But on Jan. 14 it will pass close by the planet and use Mercury's gravity for a critical assist needed to keep the spacecraft on track for its ultimate orbit around the planet three years from now. Still, the spacecraft is also expected to throw back some never-before -seen images, NASA said.

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