You can't tell by looking, but scientists say the Sun has just undergone an important change. Our star's magnetic field has flipped.The Sun's magnetic north pole, which was in the northern hemisphere just a few months ago, now points south. It's a topsy-turvy situation, but not an unexpected one.
"This always happens around the time of solar maximum," says David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "The magnetic poles exchange places at the peak of the sunspot cycle. In fact, it's a good indication that Solar Max is really here."
Above Left: Sunspot counts, plotted here against an x-ray image of the Sun, are nearing their maximum for the current solar cycle.
The Sun's magnetic poles will remain as they are now, with the north magnetic pole pointing through the Sun's southern hemisphere, until the year 2012 when they will reverse again. This transition happens, as far as we know, at the peak of every 11-year sunspot cycle -- like clockwork.
Earth?s magnetic field also flips, but with less regularity. Consecutive reversals are spaced 5 thousand years to 50 million years apart. The last reversal happened 740,000 years ago. Some researchers think our planet is overdue for another one, but nobody knows exactly when the next reversal might occur.
Although solar and terrestrial magnetic fields behave differently, they do have something in common: their shape. During solar minimum the Sun's field, like Earth's, resembles that of an iron bar magnet, with great closed loops near the equator and open field lines near the poles. Scientists call such a field a "dipole." The Sun's dipolar field is about as strong as a refrigerator magnet, or 50 gauss (a unit of magnetic intensity). Earth's magnetic field is 100 times weaker.