The sun gets ready for a flip

Credit: NASA

Our sun is not only the center of the solar system, but also often gets to be the center of attention by scientists. Even now, the diva star is about to put on another massive performance. Every 11 years, the sun's poles switch magnetic fields. It's a major process that involves a wavy electric current dance, followed by an eventual full switch in polarity. NASA expects the next polar flip will occur within the next few months and are now following events on the sun closely.

So what happens when the sun's magnetic fields flip? In order to understand the process, scientists refer to the term "current sheet." This is a huge surface that starts at the sun's equator, which is where the magnetic field generates an electric current. Although the electric current created here is relatively small, it spreads out to cover a lot of space — the sheet extends beyond Pluto. When the fields begin to reverse, the sheet begins to demonstrate a wavy pattern, after which the sun's polarities begin to weaken and eventually go out. After that, each pole re-emerges with an opposite polarity. This shift affects space weather all the way out to the farthest edges of the Milky Way.

There's no need to worry, though. Although this process does create dangerous cosmic rays that could potentially affect Earth's climate, scientists believe that the waves in the current sheet during the reversal process actually work to shield our planet from any harmful effects.

NASA is studying the sun's polar reversal using a magnetogram at Wilcox Solar Observatory in California. This will be the fourth reversal that Wilcox has witnessed. Current data is showing that the sun's poles have already started the transition.


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