Until ten years ago, most astronomers did not believe stardust could enter our Solar System. Then ESAs Ulysses spaceprobe discovered minute stardust particles leaking through the Suns magnetic shield, into the realm of Earth and the other planets. Now, the same spaceprobe has shown that a flood of dusty particles is heading our way.
Since its launch in 1990, Ulysses has constantly monitored how much stardust enters the Solar System from the interstellar space around it. Using an on-board instrument called DUST, scientists have discovered that stardust can actually approach the Earth and other planets, but its flow is governed by the Suns magnetic field, which behaves as a powerful gate-keeper bouncing most of it back. However, during solar maximum - a phase of intense activity inside the Sun that marks the end of each 11-year solar cycle - the magnetic field becomes disordered as its polarity reverses. As a result, the Suns shielding power weakens and more stardust can sneak in.
What is surprising in this new Ulysses discovery is that the amount of stardust has continued to increase even after the solar activity calmed down and the magnetic field resumed its ordered shape in 2001.
Markus Landgraf | alfa
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