There is a lot that we don’t know about the Sun and its behavior but something that might be especially shocking is that we have never seen its poles. Detailed investigations of these regions will happen in the coming years, but until then we can just marvel at some of the peculiar events that happen around them. Including something that happened just last week.
Space weather physicist Dr. Tamitha Skov shared the unique spectacle, recorded by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, on Twitter. A sizable solar prominence – a dense cloud of plasma – is seen shooting upwards from the surface of the Sun. And then the material is whipped around the north pole, into a vortex.
“Implications for understanding the Sun's atmospheric dynamics above 55° here cannot be overstated,” Dr Skov tweeted. And she’s right. Documenting these kinds of events is crucial to explain them.
A vortex quite like this has never been seen before but solar physicists have witnessed such prominence happen regularly. It is a staple of the 11-year solar cycle, even though the exact mechanisms of its formation and evolution are currently unclear.
"Once every solar cycle, it forms at the 55 degree latitude and it starts to march up to the solar poles," Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and deputy director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com. "It's very curious. There is a big 'why' question around it. Why does it only move toward the pole one time and then disappears and then comes back, magically, three or four years later in exactly the same region?"
The task of finding out what the poles of the Sun look like and what’s going on at higher latitudes is given to Solar Orbiter, a mission of the European Space Agency with the support of NASA. The spacecraft has been traveling in the inner solar system for three years exactly today and it is using close passes to the planet Venus to tilt its orbit more and more. Its orbit will have a 17-degree inclination by 2025 and it is expected to go up to 33 degrees.
“I think the most exciting thing is that we're going to see the poles of the Sun and that's never been seen before,” Dr David Williams, one of the three instrument operations scientists for Solar Orbiter, previously told IFLScience.
The Sun’s mysteries are slowly being revealed and it looks like the current solar cycle continues to be a lively one.