Questions and Answers About the Sun:
What is the Sun?» answer
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!« close
What is the Sun made of?» answer
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.”« close
How big is the Sun?» answer
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!« close
How far away is the Sun?» answer
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.« close
How heavy is the Sun?» answer
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.)« close
How old is the Sun?» answer
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.« close
How hot is the Sun?» answer
The Sun is extremely HOT! The middle of the Sun is at least 10 million degrees. 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.« close
Can the Sun be dangerous?» answer
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.« close
Why do we study the Sun?» answer
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.« close
How do scientists study the Sun?» answer
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.« close
What are the aurorae?» answer
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.« close
What is an eclipse?» answer
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!« close
What type of star is the Sun?» answer
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.« close
What are the physical characteristics of the Sun?» answer
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.« close
What kind of light does the Sun emit?» answer
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!)« close
What are some historical observations of the Sun?» answer
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.« close
Why is it important to study the Sun?» answer
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.« close
How does one study the Sun?» answer
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.« close
Does the Sun have a surface?» answer
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.« close
Does the brightness of the Sun change over time?» answer
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".« close
How does the Sun work (what goes on inside)?» answer
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.« close
What are the key areas of solar research today?» answer
Contemporary solar research falls in two basic areas:
- Studies of the outer solar atmosphere and its variation, and
- Studies of the inside of the Sun using seismological techniques similar to those employed in oil prospecting on the Earth.
What are the northern lights, or aurorae?» answer
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).« close
How does the Sun affect communications?» answer
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).« close
How does the Sun affect our climate?» answer
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).« close