So, as we experience solar maximum, the sun's interior reaches a tipping point in its magnetic polarity, signified by a magnetic field weakening. When the field does switch polarity, it's not just a local event. The sun's magnetic field projects from the sun and sweeps throughout the sun's environment - the heliosphere. As the field flips inside the sun, so does the interplanetary magnetic field, causing the magnetic field and associated electric "current sheet" to ripple and warp.
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Although the underlying reasons for the solar cycle are yet to be understood, Hoeksema and Scherrer know what's going to happen next.
"The sun's north pole has already changed sign, while the south pole is racing to catch up," says Scherrer. "Soon, however, both poles will be reversed, and the second half of Solar Max will be underway."
Image: A NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory image of the multimillion degree plasma of the sun, plus lines depicting the paths of the magnetic field originating from the sun's interior. Credit: NASA/SDO