This Essay Is Going To The Sun

For the newspaper, see The Sun (newspaper).

The Sun in the center of our solar system is a yellow dwarf star. It gives off energy as electromagnetic radiation. That includes light, infra-red energy (heat), ultraviolet light and radio waves. It also gives off a stream of particles, which reaches Earth as "solar wind". The source of all this energy is the reaction in the star which turns hydrogen into helium and makes huge amounts of energy.

The Sun is a star like many others in our Milky Waygalaxy. It has existed for a little over 4.5 billion years, and is going to continue for at least as long. The Sun is about a hundred times as wide as the Earth. It has a mass of 7030198910000000000♠1.9891×1030 kg, which is 333,000 times the mass of the Earth. The Earth can also fit inside the Sun 1.3 million times.

Physics of the Sun[change | change source]

Origin[change | change source]

Scientists think that the Sun started from a very large cloud of dust and small bits of ice about 4.567 billion years ago.[9]

At the center of that huge cloud, gravity caused the material to build up into a ball. Once this got big enough, the huge pressure inside started a fusion reaction. The energy this released caused that ball to heat and shine.

The energy radiated from the Sun pushed away the rest of the cloud from itself, and the planets formed from the rest of this cloud

How it works[change | change source]

The sun can also be used as a source of energy. That energy is Solar energy.

Orbit[change | change source]

The sun and everything that orbits it is located in the Milky Way. As the sun orbits it takes everything in the solar system. The sun moves at 820,000 km an hour. At that speed its still 230 million years for a full orbit.

Visible features[change | change source]

Since the Sun is all gas, surface features come and go. If the Sun is viewed through a special solar telescope, dark areas called sunspots can be seen. These areas are caused by the Sun's magnetic field. The sunspots only look dark because the rest of the Sun is very bright.

Some space telescopes, including the ones that orbit the Sun have seen huge arches of the Sun's matter extend suddenly from the Sun. These are called solar prominences. Solar prominences come in many different shapes and sizes. Some of them are so large that the Earth could fit inside of them, and a few are shaped like hands. Solar flares also come and go.

Sunspots, prominences and flares become rare, and then numerous, and then rare again, every 11 years.

Photosphere[change | change source]

This is the surface of the Sun. The light that the Earth receives from the Sun is radiated from this layer. Below this layer, the Sun is opaque, or not transparent to light.

Atmosphere[change | change source]

Five layers make up the atmosphere of the Sun. The chromosphere, transition region, and corona are much hotter than the outer photosphere surface of the Sun.[10] It is believed that Alfvén waves may pass through to heat the corona.[11]

The minimum temperature zone, the coolest layer of the Sun, is about 7005500000000000000♠500 km above the photosphere. It has a temperature of about 7003410000000000000♠4100 K.[10] This part of the Sun is cool enough to allow simple molecules such as carbon monoxide and water to form. These molecules can be seen on the Sun with special instruments called spectroscopes.[12]

The chromosphere is the first layer of the Sun which can be seen, especially during a solar eclipse when the moon is covering most of the Sun and blocking the brightest light.

The solar transition region is the part of the Sun's atmosphere, between the chromosphere and outer part called the corona.[13] It can be seen from space using telescopes that can sense ultraviolet light. The transition is between two very different layers. In the bottom part it touches the photosphere and gravity shapes the features. At the top, the transition layer touches the corona.

The corona is the outer atmosphere of the Sun and is much bigger than the rest of the Sun. The corona continuously expands into space forming the solar wind, which fills all the Solar System.[14] The average temperature of the corona and solar wind is about 1,000,000–2,000,000 K. In the hottest regions it is 8,000,000–20,000,000 K.[15] We do not understand why the corona is so hot.[14][15] It can be seen during a solar eclipse or with an instrument called a coronagraph.

The heliosphere is the thin outer atmosphere of the Sun, filled with the solar windplasma. It extends out past the orbit of Pluto to the heliopause, where it forms a boundary where it collides with the interstellar medium.[16]

Eclipses[change | change source]

A solar eclipse appears when the moon is between the Earth and Sun. The last partial eclipse seen in Britain was on the 21st of August, 2017.

A lunar eclipse happens when the moon passes through the shadow of the Earth which can only occur during a full moon.The number of lunar eclipses in a single year can range from 0 to 3. Partial eclipses slightly outnumber total eclipses by 7 to 6.[17]

Fate of the Sun[change | change source]

Astrophysicists say our Sun is a G-type main-sequence star in the middle of its life. In a billion years or so, increased solar energy will boil away the Earth's atmosphere and oceans. In a few more billion years, they think the Sun will get bigger and become a red giant star. The Sun would be up to 250 times its current size, as big as 1.4 AU and will swallow up the earth.

Earth's fate is still a bit of a mystery. In the long term, the Earth's future depends on the Sun, and the Sun is going to be fairly stable for the next 5 billion years.[18][19] Calculations suggest that the Earth might move to a wider orbit. This is because about 30% of the Sun's mass will blow away in the solar wind. However, in the very long term the Earth will probably be destroyed as the Sun increases in size. Stars like the Sun become red giants at a later stage.[20] The Sun will expand beyond orbits of Mercury, Venus, and probably Earth. In any event, the Earth's ocean and air would have vanished before the Sun gets to that stage.

After the Sun reaches a point where it can no longer get bigger, it will lose its layers and form a planetary nebula. Eventually, the Sun will shrink into a white dwarf. Then, over several hundred billion or even a trillion years, the Sun would fade into a black dwarf.

More reading[change | change source]

  • Lang, Kenneth R. (2001). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Sun. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521780933. 

References[change | change source]

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  1. 1.001.011.021.031.041.051.061.071.081.091.10Williams, D. R. (1 July 2013). "Sun Fact Sheet". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  2. "Eclipse 99: Frequently Asked Questions". NASA. Retrieved 24 October 2010. 
  3. ↑Hinshaw, G. (2009). "Five-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe observations: data processing, sky maps, and basic results". The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series180 (2): 225–245. doi:10.1088/0067-0049/180/2/225. 
  4. 4.004.014.024.034.044.054.064.074.084.094.104.11"Solar System Exploration: Planets: Sun: Facts & Figures". NASA. Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. 
  5. ↑Emilio, M.; Kuhn, J. R.; Bush, R. I.; Scholl, I. F. (2012). "Measuring the Solar Radius from Space during the 2003 and 2006 Mercury Transits". The Astrophysical Journal750 (2): 135. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/750/2/135. 
  6. Ko, M. (1999). Elert, G., ed. "Density of the Sun". The Physics Factbook. 
  7. ↑Bonanno, A.; Schlattl, H.; Paternò, L. (2008). "The age of the Sun and the relativistic corrections in the EOS". Astronomy and Astrophysics390 (3): 1115–1118. doi:10.1051/0004-6361:20020749. 
  8. ↑"The Absolute Chronology and Thermal Processing of Solids in the Solar Protoplanetary Disk". Science338 (6107): 651–655. 2 November 2012. doi:10.1126/science.1226919. PMID 23118187. //www.sciencemag.org/content/338/6107/651.full. Retrieved 17 March 2014. 
  9. ↑Connelly, James N. et al (2012). "The absolute chronology and thermal processing of solids in the solar protoplanetary disk". Science338 (6107): 651–655. doi:10.1126/science.1226919. PMID 23118187. 
  10. 10.010.1Abhyankar K.D. (1977). "A survey of the solar atmospheric models". Bull. Astr. Soc. India5: 40–44. http://prints.iiap.res.in/handle/2248/510. 
  11. ↑De Pontieu B. et al (2007). "Chromospheric Alfvénic waves strong enough to power the solar wind". Science318 (5856): 1574–77. doi:10.1126/science.1151747. PMID 18063784. 
  12. ↑Solanki S.K; Livingston W. & Ayres T (1994). "New light on the heart of darkness of the solar chromosphere". Science263 (5143): 64–66. doi:10.1126/science.263.5143.64. PMID 17748350. 
  13. "The Transition Region". Solar Physics, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA. 
  14. 14.014.1Russell, C.T. (2001). "Solar wind and interplanetary magnetic filed: A tutorial". In Song, Paul; Singer, Howard J. and Siscoe, George L. Space weather (Geophysical Monograph)(PDF). American Geophysical Union. pp. 73–88. ISBN 978-0-87590-984-4. 
  15. 15.015.1Erdèlyi R. & Ballai I. 2007. Heating of the solar and stellar coronae: a review. Astron. Nachr. 328 (8): 726–733
  16. ↑European Space Agency (2005). "The distortion of the Heliosphere: our interstellar magnetic compass". Press release. http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=16394. Retrieved 2006-03-22. 
  17. ↑[1]
  18. ↑The Sun's evolution
  19. ↑Goldsmith D. & Owen T. 2001. The search for life in the universe. University Science Books, p. 96. ISBN 978-1-891389-16-0
  20. ↑Schröder K.-P. & Smith R.C. 2008. Distant future of the Sun and Earth revisited. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society386 (1): 155–163. [2]

What is the Sun?

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Believe it or not, the Sun is just a star, just like those we see twinkling at night. The Sun, however, is so much closer to us on Earth that it looks much bigger, much brighter, and we can even feel heat coming from it.

Scientists know great deal about the stars that shine at night. Compared to these other stars, the Sun is actually quite average. Many of the stars that appear so small in the night sky are actually much bigger than our Sun. Others, however, are quite tiny in comparison. Some are much hotter, and some are so cool and dim we can barely see them. But for us on Earth, the Sun is just right!

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What is the Sun made of?

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The Sun is made of hot gases, containing many of the same materials we find here on the Earth. These materials, called elements, include hydrogen, helium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and iron. You can find all of these on any periodic table of elements.

Did you know that most of the atoms in our bodies were made inside stars? As the famous scientist and educator Carl Sagan says, we are “star stuff.”

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How big is the Sun?

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The Sun is HUGE! Even though it looks small in the sky it is actually bigger than you might imagine. It only looks small because it is 93 million miles away. (That's about 150 million km.) The Earth is very tiny compared to the Sun. In fact, if you think of the Sun as a basketball, the Earth would only be the size of the head of a pin—a mere speck.

The Earth is about 13 thousand kilometers (8000 miles) wide, whereas the Sun is roughly 1.4 million kilometers (900,000 miles) across. This means it would take more than 100 Earths to span the width of the Sun! If the Sun were a hollow ball, you could fit about one million Earths inside of it!

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How far away is the Sun?

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The Sun is very FAR from Earth. In fact, it is 93 million miles away. (That's about 150 million km.) If the Sun were the size of a basketball, and Earth the size of the head of a pin, the basketball and the pin would be separated by about 100 feet -- a third of a football field (30.5 meters). If you were standing at the basketball (and didn't have a telescope to help you), you wouldn't even be able to see the pinhead Earth.

Another way to understand the distance is to think of driving to the Sun in a car. If you actually could do this, and drove really fast, say 60 miles an hour (80 km/hr), it would take you 176 years to get there! Light from the Sun takes about 8 minutes to reach the Earth. If you understand how fast light travels, you can recognize that the Sun must be very far away.

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How heavy is the Sun?

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Although we cannot actually weigh the Sun with a scale, we can compute its weight by studying the way it affects other objects, like the Earth. We do know that it contains virtually all the mass in our solar system! We can also understand this better by making some comparisons. Since the Sun is so much more massive than the Earth (over 300,000 times heavier) its gravitational pull is also much larger. A child that weighs 75 pounds on Earth would weigh about a ton on the Sun. The weight increases by a factor of 30. (Of course, we cannot really stand on the Sun, for it is too hot and has no solid surface.)

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How old is the Sun?

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The Sun is about 4 1/2 billion years old. Humans have only been around for a tiny, tiny fraction of this time. As a comparison, if you think of 4.5 billion years as the length of a 12 inch ruler, then the time humans have existed wouldn't even be the width of the lines marking the inches. (Metric equivalent is 30.5cm and it would still be just the width of the markings.)

The Sun will remain more or less the way it is now for about another 5 billion years. After that, it will exhaust the hydrogen it currently “burns” and will enter a new phase of existence. During this phase the Sun will begin “burning” helium and will expand to about 100 times its current size and become what is called a red giant. Once it runs out of helium it will collapse into a much smaller object called a white dwarf.

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How hot is the Sun?

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The Sun is extremely HOT! The middle of the Sun is at least 10 milliondegrees. The “surface” of the Sun (what we see) is only 5800 degrees. This is cool for the Sun, but is actually about 16 times hotter than boiling water (ouch!). The outer atmosphere of the Sun (which we don't really see with our eyes) gets extremely hot again, about 1.5 to 2 million degrees. These huge temperature changes are very interesting to scientists.

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Can the Sun be dangerous?

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Never look directly at the Sun, even with sunglasses. The human eye is not made to look at an object that bright. It is so bright it could easily blind you in just a few seconds. Have you ever looked at a bright light bulb and then had to look away after a short time? Well, the Sun is about a million times brighter than a household light bulb. This is why you can injure your eyes: if you look directly at the Sun, the inside of your eyes can burn severely and may never heal again. You could lose your sight permanently. In order to study the Sun, scientists look directly at the Sun only with the aid of special instruments that are made to tolerate the extreme brightness.

The Sun also emits harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can damage your skin and eyes. In fact, any tan is a sign of damage to your skin! A sunburn may hurt for a while, but damaging your skin over many years can cause many problems, including skin cancer. That is why you should always wear sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher when you will be out in the Sun for more than a few minutes. This applies even for cloudy days -- though not as bright as sunny days, much of the harmful UV light still comes through. Note that having a tan is little protection from skin damage, providing an SPF of only about 2.

To help protect your eyes, use sunglasses that filter 100% of UV light. When you buy glasses, check for labels that say 100% UV Protection. People who don't protect their eyes when they are young run the risk of loss of sight when older, including getting cataracts.

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Why do we study the Sun?

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Without the Sun, life on Earth would not exist. Our planet would be a frozen dark ball, drifting dead in space. We need the Sun for light, heat and energy. With the Sun, plants can grow, and animals can eat. The Sun's output changes over time. These changes affect not only our daily lives and climate, but also our communications, such as by satellites. The more we know about the Sun, the better we can deal with these changes.

In the past, we know the Sun was a little different than it is now, and at those times the Earth experienced ice ages. During the most recent ice age, almost all of Canada and the Northern US was covered in a huge sheet of ice about a mile thick! (That's about 1.6 km.) Even recently (the late 1600s) Europe and North America were a bit cooler than they are now, experiencing a little ice age, and changes in the Sun were most likely responsible.

The ozone hole is something different. Ozone is important to humans because it shields us from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The chemicals from leaky refrigerators and air conditioners make their way up in to highest part of the Earth's atmosphere. Way up there, these chemicals destroy ozone, and scientists have noticed recently that the layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere is becoming thin in some places. Scientists must study this so we can understand why it is occurring, and to take action now to protect it. It is interesting, however, that ozone is considered a pollutant when it is close to the ground. It hurts plants and trees, and our lungs. But we need it way up high to shield us from the UV.

Also, learning more about the Sun helps us to understand better other stars. And this helps us understand better the universe in which we live.

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How do scientists study the Sun?

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Studying the Sun and how it affects the Earth is a very complicated process. In order to successfully do this, scientists approach the problem in many different ways. They separate their scientific efforts into categories and usually specialize in specific areas, such as How the amount of light from the Sun varies over time, or How the Sun's light affects the Earth's climate.

Some scientists study the Sun using computers to predict what the Sun may do in the future. Others build special instruments which look at the Sun and make measurements; they use computers both to collect and later make sense of the measurements.

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What are the aurorae?

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The Aurora are colorful, whispy, moving curtains of light that occur in the night sky near one the Earth's poles. This light moves around in and changes color in a dazzling dance of light.

The aurora are caused by energetic particles coming from the Sun. The Sun is very active, always putting stuff out into space. Every once in a while it can suddenly eject material -- a million tons of it—into space. Some of this comes towards the Earth and hits our atmosphere.

The material (small particles) interacts with the Earth's outer atmosphere, causing the gas in the atmosphere to release light. This light appears in many different colors (green, blue, and red), and we call it the aurorae.

In the north they are called aurora boreallis, or northern lights. In the south they are called aurora australis, or southern lights.

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What is an eclipse?

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Periodically the Moon will move directly in front of the the Sun. When it does, it blocks the light coming from the Sun. If it blocks out the Sun totally, we call this a total eclipse. If the Moon only blocks part of the Sun, it is a partial eclipse. You may wish to visit a real total eclipse, observed from the South American country Chile in 1994.

During a partial eclipse, you can still see part of the Sun behind the Moon, so you must not look at it. But, if you look at shadows from the leaves in trees you'll see they appear crescent shaped. Ask your teacher to make a pinhole camera, or project an image of the Sun using a mirror, and you'll be able to see the Moon blocking the Sun.

During a total eclipse, the bright Sun is completely blocked. At this time, the outer atmosphere of the Sun, or corona, becomes visible. During this brief occurrence, you can look at the corona with your eyes, because it is a million times dimmer than the Sun. Be very careful though—even the slightest portion of the Sun poking past the edge of the Moon can hurt your eyes!

As you may know, the Moon is much smaller than the Earth, and it cannot block the Sun from the whole Earth at once. For this reason, eclipses only affect a small portion of the Earth's surface when they occur.

By the way, during a total eclipse, the stars are also visible!

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What type of star is the Sun?

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The Sun is a typical G2 star. G stars are classified as having a temperature in the range of 5000 to 6000 K, and a color ranging from white to yellow. Spectrally, G stars show most predominantly the lines of ionized calcium. Lines from ionized and neutral metals are present. Lines from ionized hydrogen show up weakly.

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What are the physical characteristics of the Sun?

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What we see as the surface of the Sun, the photosphere, has a temperature of about 5780 K. The interior of the Sun probably has a temperature around 16 million K, and the extended outer atmosphere of the Sun, the solar corona, has a temperature around 2 million K. Between the photosphere and the corona is a layer called the chromosphere. It is in this region where most of the temperature rise from the surface to the corona takes place. The rapid heating from the surface of the Sun to the chromosphere and then of the corona, is one of the very interesting problems in solar physics. Especially since most of this change occurs in a distance of less than 200 km!

The composition of the Sun is primarily hydrogen, followed by rapidly decreasing amounts of almost every element. Below is a list showing the fractional amounts of the most common elements.

0.9396 hydrogen 0.05919 helium 0.0006483 oxygen 0.0003946 carbon 0.0000817 nitrogen 0.0000423 silicon 0.0000376 magnesium 0.0000348 neon 0.0000301 iron 0.0000150 sulfur 0.0000028 aluminum 0.0000019 calcium 0.0000019 sodium 0.0000019 nickel 0.0000009 argon

The diameter of the Sun is 1.4 million kilometers, and is about 150 million km away from the Earth. In contrast, the diameter of the Earth is 12735 km, about 1/100 the size of the Sun.

The distance from the Earth to the Sun varies throughout the year. At perihelion (closest approach) the distance is 147 million km, and at aphelion (farthest) the distance is 152 million km. Due to this distance variation, the Sun will appear about 3% bigger at perihelion than at aphelion. At this point in geological time, perihelion occurs in early January, and aphelion in early July. Slowly but surely, however, the perihelion point precesses, so in 23,000 or so years, perihelion will occur in July.

Note that the Earth's seasons are due to the inclination of the Earth's equator with respect to the Earth's orbital plane, which is about 23 degrees. The Earth-Sun distance variation has only an incredibly small effect in temperature. Here's a way you can test this. Put yourself about 152 feet away from a friend, and then have them yell at you. Then, move 5 feet (3%) closer, and have them yell again. You will notice almost no difference in how loud they sound. (The metric equivalent is: 46 meters away, and then 1.5 meters closer.)

The Sun's age is estimated to be around 4.5 billion years. It should remain more or less as it is for another 5.5 billion years, although it will continually be undergoing changes as it consumes its fuel through fusion.

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What kind of light does the Sun emit?

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The light or photons emitted from the Sun cover a broad spectrum from very long wavelengths such as radio to very short wavelengths such as xray. Long term exposure to UV and xrays are very damaging. So, it is a good thing the Earth's atmosphere shields us from the harmful portions of the Suns photons, otherwise there would be very little life on Earth. (At least as we know it!)

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What are some historical observations of the Sun?

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The Sun has been studied by humans for a long time. Eclipses were probably first "recorded" prior to 1948 B.C., and telescopic observations of the Sun's surface began around 1610. It was at this time that the sunspots could be systematically observed and were, by Galileo, Fabricius, Scheiner and Harriot. For Galileo this was actually unlucky. Western religions expected the Sun to have no "blemishes" and the observations of such did not further his career at all. He was forced to recant and placed under house arrest.

Nevertheless, observations of sunspots and the Sun continued. Around 1645 the sunspot count became very low until 1715. During these 70 years, there were likely less than 15 sunspots observed. These days, the minimum number observed per year is more like 15, even when the Sun is in its "inactive" phase. Interestingly, at this same time, cooler than normal temperatures were had in Europe. So, there is some indication that variations occurred in the Sun at the same time which cooled Earth's climate. This time period is referred to as the "Little Ice Age", and the sunspot absence as the Maunder minimum.

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Why is it important to study the Sun?

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As can be seen from the above, variations of the Sun's output do occur, and these affect the Earth's climate. Indeed, tree ring studies and ice core studies indicate a correlation between Earth's ice ages and the Sun's activity.

On an more timely basis, the Sun often undergoes rapid magnetic field reconfigurations. When this occurs, large amounts of material are ejected into interplanetary space. These events are called Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs. A large CME will carry a million tons of material out towards the planets at a million miles an hour. (Almost a billion kg at 27 million m/s.) When a portion of this material reaches the Earth's outer atmosphere, it impacts satellites, perturbing their orbits, scoring their surfaces, and disrupting communications. The solar material can slide down the Earth's magnetic field lines and cause the phenomenon known as Aurora, and also burn out and totally disrupt power grids.

CMEs occur perhaps once a month or so during solar minimum, and up to twice or more a day at solar maximum. The Sun's most recent max was in 1989 and the next will be in approximately 2000. It is now approaching minimum which should occur in mid-1996.

Solar max and min referred initially to the number of sunspots observed on the surface of the Sun at any time. The number of sunspots is closely related to the complexity of the Sun's magnetic the higher the number of sunspots, and the higher the activity of CMEs and flares. There is some variation, but typically there are 11 years from one maximum to the next maximum.

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How does one study the Sun?

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Since the magnetic field of the Sun is so important, scientists observe the Sun in as many wavelengths as possible that give insight into the configuration and dynamics of the field. These are the various emission and absorption lines of atoms near the Sun's surface, and electron scattering of photons higher in the Sun's atmosphere, the corona.

In addition, the rotation of the interior of the Sun is very important to the existence of the magnetic field. Since one cannot see the interior of the Sun, one must use indirect methods. As everyone knows, if one strikes an object, one can tell something about its substance by the way it vibrates in response. For example, a bell will ring, and jello will just wiggle. The same applies to the Sun. The many dynamic flares, CMEs and rolling, boiling of the Sun cause it to vibrate. With very accurate telescopes the vibrations can be measured, and then carefully analyzed to determine properties of the interior. This is a very exciting new field.

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Does the Sun have a surface?

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The Sun visible to our eyes does not have a solid surface such as that of the Earth or the Moon. The visible Sun is a hot gas with a characteristic temperature of 5700 deg. K, well beyond the melting points of material on Earth. Nevertheless, we see only its very outer layers because the gas is opaque. The effect is the same as that for a cloud which we know is composed of water molecules but which appears to have a fluffy surface. This outer visible surface is only a few hundred kilometers thick on the Sun and is called the Photosphere. This layer is the top of the solar convection zone where the solar energy is carried to the outer surface by convective gas motions over the last quarter of the solar radius. Further inside lies the radiative zone where the energy is carried principally by radiation, not convection. At the very center is the nuclear core generating energy by fusion of hydrogen to helium at temperatures of 20 million deg. K.

Above the photosphere are two additional layers, the chromosphere and corona, which were first identified at eclipses of the Sun by the Moon. The chromosphere is an inhomogeneous layer extending 10,000 km above the photosphere. It is best thought of as the transition from the photosphere to the corona. The very outer extent of the Sun proper is the tenuous corona which can extend several million kilometers into the interplanetary medium. Such extensions of the solar atmosphere produce the striking images seen at the times of solar eclipses.

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Does the brightness of the Sun change over time?

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Yes, modern measurements between 1978 and 1995 show that the "brightness" or total irradiance of the Sun fluctuates by a few tenths of a precent over the 11 year solar cycle. This small fluctuation reflects stability of the solar photosphere as seen in the visible spectrum which extends from the blue at 400 nanometers (nm) to the deep red at 800nm. Observations from space show increasing variation from the ultraviolet below 400nm to the x-ray region down to .1nm. However, the bulk of the output solar energy is in the visible spectrum; therefore, its variation dominates fluctuations on the Sun's "brightness".

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How does the Sun work (what goes on inside)?

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The Sun is a giant, natural thermonuclear reactor that converts hydrogen to helium in its core to produce the heat we sense on our faces as sunshine. Why does this reactor not explode as a thermonuclear bomb? The Sun is held together in an equilibrium state by the mutual gravitational attractions between all its atoms acting to compress the solar center and, thus, produce and contain the nuclear reactions taking place there. The solar atmosphere outside the energy generating core adjusts itself to carry the enormous amount of energy that emerges from the surface in the form of radiation. This is the basic idea behind the existence of all stars beginning with primordial gravitational attraction and compression to the beginning of nuclear energy generation and, finally, to the exhaustion of the nuclear fuel and death of the star as a truly self luminous object.

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What are the key areas of solar research today?

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Contemporary solar research falls in two basic areas:

  1. Studies of the outer solar atmosphere and its variation, and
  2. Studies of the inside of the Sun using seismological techniques similar to those employed in oil prospecting on the Earth.
Studies of the solar interior reveal for the first time the motions and thickness of the various internal zones predicted by the theory of stellar interiors such as the nuclear core, the radiative zone, and the convective zone. The interface between the radiative and convective zones appears to be the shell where the Sun generates the magnetic fields eventually seen on the surface in sunspots and other structures associated with the 11 year solar cycle. Thus, understanding the inside of the Sun is crucial to understanding solar variability due to the effects of intense magnetic fields appearing at the visible surface. « close

What are the northern lights, or aurorae?

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The northern lights occur near the north pole of earth. The phenomena is known as the aurora borealis when it occurs in the northern hemisphere and as the aurora australis when it occurs in the southern hemisphere. Auroral phenomena occur on all planets with atmospheres and planetary magnetic fields (aurorae have been observed on Jupiter). The name aurora borealis comes from the latin for northern dawn.

We now know what causes these spectacular displays in the sky. The interaction of the solar wind with the geomagnetic field of the Earth cause energetic particles (primarily electrons and protons) to enter into the Earth's upper atmosphere where they interact with molecules of nitrogen and oxygen to produce the red and green light seen in the auroral phenomena (as seen from space, as seen from Earth, some recent research results).

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How does the Sun affect communications?

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In our technology-based economy we depend heavily on satellites and various forms of high frequency communication systems. Communications and navigation systems used by commercial airliners can be affected by geomagnetic storms which are caused by solar activity. Geomagnetic storms can actually cause the atmosphere of Earth to expand affecting satellite orbits. An excellent review of these issues can be found at the Space Environment Laboratory (NOAA).

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How does the Sun affect our climate?

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The Sun drives the weather on planet Earth. The winds and circulation of ocean patterns are all affected by the Sun's energy output. The differential heating of the planet, due to the tilt of the rotation axis of the Earth with respect to the Sun generates the winds and major ocean currents as well as providing us with our seasons. Furthermore, it is believed that the 11-year solar cycle has an impact on our climate. An excellent review of the climatic impact of the Sun on Earth can be found at Space Environment Laboratory (NOAA).

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What is space weather?

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One effect of the Sun's output on the geospace environment is auroral phenomena. Other phenomena affect communications, navigation and our climate. A nice presentation about the interactions of the Sun with the Earth can be found at Space Weather at Rice University.

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