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 Sun's 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 Sun's 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.
Scientists believe that this is due to the way in which the polarity changed during solar maximum. Instead of reversing completely, flipping north to south, the Sun's magnetic poles have only rotated at halfway and are now more or less lying sideways along the Sun's equator. This weaker configuration of the magnetic shield is letting in two to three times more stardust than at the end of the 1990s. Moreover, this influx could increase by as much as ten times until the end of the current solar cycle in 2012.
The stardust itself is very fine - just one-hundredth of the width of a human hair. It is unlikely to have much effect on the planets but it is bound to collide with asteroids, chipping off larger dust particles, again increasing the amount of dust in the inner Solar System. On the one hand, this means that the solar panels of spacecraft may be struck more frequently by dust, eventually causing a gradual loss of power, and that space observatories looking in the plane of the planets may have to cope with the haze of more sunlight diffused by the dust.
On the other hand, this astronomical occurrence could offer a powerful new way to look at the icy comets in the Kuiper Belt region of the outer Solar System. Stardust colliding with them will chip off fragments that can be studied collectively with ESA's forthcoming infrared space telescope, Herschel. This might provide vital insight into a poorly understood region of the Solar System, where the debris from the formation of the planets has accumulated.
Back down on Earth, everyone may notice an increase in the number of sporadic meteors that fall from the sky every night. These meteors, however, will be rather faint.
Astronomers still do not know whether the current stardust influx, apart from being favoured by the particular configuration of the Sun's magnetic field, is also enhanced by the thickness of the interstellar clouds into which the Solar System is moving. Currently located at the edge of what astronomers call the local interstellar cloud, our Sun is about to join our closest stellar neighbour Alpha Centauri in its cloud, which is less hot but denser.
ESA's Ulysses data make it finally possible to study how stardust is distributed along the path of the Solar System through the local galactic environment. However, as it takes over 70 thousand years to traverse a typical galactic cloud, no abrupt changes are expected in the short term.