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Sun

The Sun has been burning for about 5 billion (5,000,000,000) years. Our Galaxy is more than 10 billion years old, and new stars are forming all the time, so our Sun is neither young nor old, and is almost right in the middle of stellar ages. -- Dr. Eric Christian, NASA

Text and Scans listed below courtesy of NASA
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New Views of the Sun
An image of the Sun taken in ultraviolet light reveals gas at 1.5 million degrees Celsius shaped by magnetic fields. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), launched in late 1995, is a spacecraft that is increasing our understanding of the Sun and Size: 30K

Surprises from SOHO include tornadoes on the Sun
British scientists discovered the solar tornadoes in images and data from SOHO's scanning spectrometer CDS. One of SOHO's main tasks is to trace the sources of the wind from the Sun that pervades the Solar System. The newly discovered tornadoes may cont Size: 17K


Cosmic and Heliospheric Learning Center -- The Sun
The chromosphere and corona can only be seen during solar eclipses, or with instruments that simulate a solar eclipse. In one of LASCO's images of activity on the Sun, shown here, blobs of plasma (the solar wind stream) can be seen to be emitted from the Size: 15K

Ask the Space Scientist about : The Sun
Why is a magnetic field 'frozen into' the solar wind? Would the solar wind knock a planet off its orbit if the planet didn't have a magnetic field? Do all stars produce solar winds?
Size: 10K





NASA: Ask A Physicist

Sun


To learn a lot more about the Sun, check out the Cosmic and Heliospheric Learning Center's page on the Sun.

Don't Look at the Sun!

What's a Heliologist?

Solar Mass

Composition of the Sun

Why the Sun Shines

How Much Mass Does the Sun Consume?

How Hot is the Sun's Core?

Solar Interior

Light from the Center of the Sun

The Sun Still Has Most of Its Energy Left?

How Long Will the Sun Last?

Myth: Sun is Shrinking

High Temperature of the Corona

How Long Has the Sun Been Burning?

How Much Power Does the Sun Produce?

Solar Constant

Total Solar Irradiance

How Long for the Sun's Heat to Reach Earth?

Sunspots

Do Sunspots Disappear?

Difference Between Flares and Prominences

Solar Cycles

Far Side of the Sun?

The Sun's Orbit

Sun a Binary Star?

Sun Further North?

Particles From the Sun

Solar Wind and Corona

Charge on Solar Wind?

Variations in Solar Wind

Solar Wind Erosion

How Big is the Heliosphere?

Copernicus' Heliocentric Theory

Does the Sun Revolve Around Something?

How Long to Drive to the Sun?



  1. Don't Look at the Sun!

    Is it possible to see sunspots with the naked eye?

    Please DON'T EVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN! It will cause permanent eye damage.

    There's a web site at Ohio State University that will give you more information about solar observing. Section Five on this site may answer some of your questions about sunspots, if you have others. Of course you can always check out our page on sunspots.

    Beth Jacob

  2. What's a Heliologist?

    What is a heliologist?

    A heliologist would be a person who studies the Sun.

    Dr. Louis Barbier

  3. Solar Mass

    What is a solar mass?

    One solar mass is just the mass of our Sun, 2 x 1030 kg. It's used for convenience, because saying that a star is 4 solar masses (4 times the mass of our Sun) is easier to visualize than saying it has a mass of 8 x 1030 kg.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  4. Composition of the Sun

    Are there more different kinds of gases on the Sun than on any of the planets?

    There is more hydrogen and helium in the Sun than there is on Earth because the Earth's gravity is not strong enough to keep all the hydrogen and helium gas from escaping. The gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) are big enough to hold on to all that gas and are made up of the same stuff the Sun is. The biggest difference between the gas of the Sun and the planets is that the Sun is in a plasma state, where the electrons are separated from the gas nuclei.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  5. Why the Sun Shines

    I am curious to know why the Sun shines. I understand some solar rays are x-rays but isn't the Sun much too cool to produce these?

    The Sun gives off light and heat because it is essentially a giant nuclear reactor that is fusing (burning) hydrogen into helium inside. When hydrogen combines to form helium, it gives off energy. Fusion is a very efficient way of converting mass to energy (light and heat); only a very, very, very tiny amount of the Sun is used up. There's a good Web page at the University of Oregon.

    Most of the visible light from the Sun comes just from the fact that it is hot. The surface (what we see) is about 5800 Kelvin. The center is over 15,000,000 Kelvin. A few of the thermal photons extend up into the x-rays, but most of the x-rays and gamma rays come from nuclear reactions that are taking place in the Sun (the fusion that powers the Sun is a nuclear reaction, and there are lots of peripheral reactions going on).

    Incidentally, the Sun also releases particles continuously in the solar wind, and even more so during solar activity.

    Drs. Eric Christian and Louis Barbier

  6. How Much Mass Does the Sun Consume?

    I heard at one time the amount of matter that is converted by the Sun into energy and released, but have been unable to remember the quantity stated. It was given as the number of Earth masses that are converted every month or year.

    The Sun consumes about 600 million tons of hydrogen per second. (That's 6 x 108 tons.) For comparison, the mass of the Earth is about 1.35 x 1021 tons. This would mean the Sun consumes the mass of the Earth in about 70,000 years.

    Dr. Louis Barbier

  7. How Hot is the Sun's Core?

    How hot can the core get?

    The temperature of the Sun's core is about 15 million degrees Kelvin or about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  8. Solar Interior

    I have read the following expression, related to the Sun's photosphere: "Below the photosphere the solar gas is opaque. This opacity is primarily due to a small concentration of negative hydrogen ions in the region immediately below the photosphere." I want to know what "negative hydrogen ions" are. I can not imagine a negative hydrogen ion, and I do not understand how it can be produced.

    Well, I'm not an expert on stellar interiors, but it is possible for a proton to attract two electrons. Although a proton-electron pair is electrically neutral, close in it has an electric field, due to the fact that the electron and proton are not at the same location. What I think your quote is referring to, however, is what is also called the "Free-Free" absorption of light. A free electron can scatter light, but can't absorb the photon, due to conservation of energy and momentum. In the presence of something else (such as a hydrogen atom), the electron can absorb the photon. Since the electron has to be close (within the electric field) of the hydrogen atom, you could consider this to be a negative hydrogen atom, but the electron is usually unbound (on a hyperbolic orbit). But the free-free absorption is an important component to stellar opacity.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  9. Light from the Center of the Sun

    On a PBS science show I heard a statement made about the length of time it took for light to go from the center of the Sun to its outer edge. The time was in thousands of years, which does not sound plausible, but someone else on the show confirmed the statement. Can you provide any information about this?

    Yes, it does take light thousands of years to get out of the Sun. The important thing to realize is that the Sun (especially at the center) is quite opaque, that is, light travels through it only slightly better than light travels through a rock. What happens is that light only travels a short distance before it is absorbed. It is then re-emitted, but in a random direction. It eventually random "walks" it's way out of the Sun, but that takes a long time.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  10. The Sun Still Has Most of Its Energy Left?

    If the Sun is as old as it is and it still has 99.9% of its energy left, then what is the potential relative life span of the Sun remaining? What will be left at 15,000 A.D.?

    Our Sun is about halfway through the "main sequence" part of its life. During this part, the Sun "burns" hydrogen into helium (fusion), which is what generates the heat and light. The Sun has been doing this for about 5 billion years, so in 13,000 years (15,000 A.D.) there will be no real difference from the energy left now. In about 5 billion more years, the useable hydrogen (not all the hydrogen) will have been converted to helium, and the Sun will start burning helium, and become a red giant. After that the Sun will recollapse down to a white dwarf and last for billions of years more.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  11. How Long Will the Sun Last?

    How does the Sun last so long? Could the Sun ever crash into a planet, and that planet crash into another planet, until there are no more planets left? How big could the Sun get?

    I'll answer these questions together. The Sun lasts so long and gives off so much light because it is a giant nuclear reactor that is fusing (burning) hydrogen gas into helium gas. (see Why the Sun Shines) Eventually (more than 5 billion years from now) the Sun will use up most of its hydrogen and will get larger and cooler. At this time, Mercury and Venus, and possibly the Earth, will be swallowed up by the Sun. But the Sun will never get large enough (hundreds of millions of miles in radius) to "crash" into the outer planets.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  12. Myth: Sun is Shrinking

    The Sun is shrinking at five feet per year. Considering the temperature of the Sun, how would the average temperature of the Earth be affected by increasing the size of the Sun by 5 million feet per million years? If we went back say, one million, ten million, or a hundred million years?

    It is incorrect to say that the Sun is shrinking and it has been since the "creation" of the Universe. The Sun is not shrinking at a consistent rate. The data that were used to derive that were both wrong and misinterpreted. See http://www.skepticfriends.org/hoax1.htm.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  13. High Temperature of the Corona

    I am a university undergraduate trying to understand the nature of the extremely high temperatures in the corona. I think it is due to b-fields interacting with plasma. Am I right or on the wrong path altogether?

    Why the corona is so hot, when the region below it is several orders of magnitude cooler, is one of the open questions in solar physics. Magnetic fields and turbulence in the plasma are certainly involved, but the exact mechanism is not understood. One suggestion is that large numbers of "microflares" are the cause. NASA is developing a mission that should study this problem (and others) called Solar Probe.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  14. How Long Has the Sun Been Burning?

    How long has the sun been burning? Compared to other stars, is our Sun young or old?

    The Sun has been burning for about 5 billion (5,000,000,000) years. Our Galaxy is more than 10 billion years old, and new stars are forming all the time, so our Sun is neither young nor old, and is almost right in the middle of stellar ages.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  15. How Much Power Does the Sun Produce?

    About how much power does the Sun produce?

    The Sun's output is 3.8 x 1033 ergs/second, or about 5 x 1023 horsepower. How much is that? It is enough energy to melt a bridge of ice 2 miles wide, 1 mile thick, and extending the entire way from the Earth to the Sun, in one second.

    Dr. Louis Barbier

  16. Solar Constant

    What does the term "solar constant" mean?

    The solar constant is the amount of energy from the Sun at the distance of the Earth (outside the atmosphere). It is 1367 Watts per meter squared. It is not really constant; it varies by less than a percent due to solar activity.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  17. Total Solar Irradiance

    Does anyone keep tract of the Sun's radiant, or heat energy output as a function of time? Most global warming models I have looked into use the Sun's energy output as a constant or a sine wave cycle. One scientist informed me that the Sun's energy output has increased over the past 100 years, but I have not seen any data to support that contention. I would like to see a plot of the Sun's heat energy output over the past 100 years.

    There's a good explanation of the variations in total solar irradiance at the ACRIMSAT (Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor SATellite) web site:

     

      "...the sun's output changes so slowly and solar variability is so slight (less than 0.00425% of the total energy per year on time scales of days), that continuous monitoring by state-of-the-art instrumentation is necessary to detect changes with climate significance. Scientists theorize that as much as 25% of the 20th century anticipated global warming of the Earth may be due to changes in the sun's energy output. Systematic changes in irradiance as little as 0.25% per century can cause the complete range of climate variations that have occurred in the past, ranging from ice ages to global tropical conditions. For example, scientists believe the "Little Ice Age" that occurred in Europe in the late 17th century could have been related to the minimum in sunspot activity (and a correlated minimum in total solar irradiance) that occurred during the same period."

    This page includes a graph of total solar irradiance from 1980 to 1996, measured by the ACRIMSATs. The changes in energy shown there are caused by the solar sunspot cycle. There's another graph of total solar irradiance at the Athena web site.

    Beth Jacob

  18. How Long for the Sun's Heat to Reach Earth?

    How long does it take heat created on the Sun's surface to reach Earth? Is it the same as the speed of light?

    Heat is transmitted through conduction, convection, and radiation. The heat that reaches us from the Sun is infrared radiation, which travels at the speed of light. So, it takes about 8 minutes for it to reach Earth from the Sun.

    Dr. Louis Barbier

  19. Sunspots

    How are sunspots formed? What causes them? What are they made of?

    For information about sunspots, you should start with the Learning Center's sunspot page. More in-depth information on sunspots can be found at some specialty web sites such as the Exploratorium and the National Solar Observatory/Sacramento Peak.

    You might be interested to know that some of your questions about sunspots -- how are they formed and what causes them -- are the same ones that scientists are now trying to answer.

    Beth Jacob

  20. Do Sunspots Disappear?

    Do sunspots disappear?

    Sunspots are only temporary; they pop up and disappear all the time. Small ones can fade out in a few days, and larger ones can last months.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  21. Difference Between Flares and Prominences

    I'm still confused as to the difference between solar flares and solar prominences. I've seen photos of these hugh solar loops, which are sometimes identified as prominences and sometimes as flares.

    Prominences are big loops of hot gas (plasma) trapped by magnetic field lines. Flares are sudden increases in brightness (not necessarily in the visible part of the spectrum) in a region. Here's another web site in our lab that discusses this.

    Dr. Louis Barbier

  22. Solar Cycles

    How many different solar cycles are there (for example, sunspots)? When is the next maximum of the solar cycle? With the advent of global (warming?), are there other cycles that we do not know about?

    The Sun is a variable star, and its major cycle is the 11-year/22-year sunspot cycle. I say 11-year/22-year because, although there is a maximum in solar activity and sunspot numbers every 11 years, it is caused by a 22-year cycle of magnetic field flipping in the Sun. There are just two maximum activity time periods every 22 year cycle. The next solar maximum is approaching now, and should peak about 2002.

    There are other changes in the solar activity that either are irregular, or humans haven't been monitoring the Sun long enough to see the cycles (we have complete coverage of sunspot numbers since the mid 1700's, and this is a pretty good measure of solar activity). For example, there was a decrease in solar output in the early 1800's (known as the "Maunder minimum"), which could be seen in the sunspot number and caused a "mini" Ice Age in Europe.

    Drs. Eric Christian and Louis Barbier

  23. Far Side of the Sun?

    I just read an article stating that scientists have just "had their first glimpse of the Sun's hidden half". We orbit around the Sun, and it takes us 365 days to do so, so how is it that we have never seen the other side of the Sun?

    Scientists on the SOHO spacecraft have learned how to see some of what is happening on the far side of the Sun, even though the spacecraft is on the same side as the Earth is. The Sun rotates every 26 - 28 days (since the Sun isn't solid, different parts rotate at different speeds), so we would see the hidden half in 13-14 days, but this new data gives us a way to see active areas (sunspots) before they rotate around to the side we can see. The article is here.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  24. The Sun's Orbit

    The planets rotate and circle the Sun. Does the Sun rotate and circle something larger?

    Yes, the Sun is only one of many stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is located in one of the spiral arms about 30,000 light years from the center. It moves at a speed of 200 - 300 km/sec in its orbit around the Galactic nucleus, and takes roughly 200 million of our years to make one orbit of the Galaxy, or one "Galactic year".

    Drs. Eric Christian and Louis Barbier

  25. Sun a Binary Star?

    Is our Sun part of a binary star system?

    There was a theory that the Sun was part of a binary star system (the second star was called Nemesis). But there is no real evidence for it.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  26. Sun Further North?

    I've noticed for the last few years that the Sun seems to be further north than it used to be for the corresponding time of year in previous years. I live near Buffalo, New York. Might there be some explanation for my observations?

    There is some wobble of the Earth's axis of rotation (called precession), but it is not noticible over just a few years. The Sun appears pretty much in the same place at the same time of the year.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  27. Particles From the Sun

    The "Science Goals" link on the ACE home page includes several goals about determining the difference in composition between the Sun's corona and photosphere, but doesn't mention the chromosphere. Why?

    Since ACE measures only particles, and the particles that come from the chromosphere have to "pass through" the corona before they get out, there is essentially no way to separately get the composition of the chromosphere. Photospheric particles are given off in solar flares, so we can look at them.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  28. Solar Wind and Corona

    Where can I get information on solar wind and the solar corona?

    At a college level, your best bet is the college library. At a lower level, middle or high school, start with the heliosphere in our web site (click on the Sun and Solar Wind to learn more). And these are a few other sites that might be of help to you at the same level:

     

    • Sun -- Windows to the Universe

    • Sun -- Hawaii Astronomical Society

    • About the Sun -- Stanford Solar Center

    Ms. Beth Jacob

  29. Charge on Solar Wind?

    Is there a net electrical charge on the solar wind? If there is, is the Earth developing a charge with respect to the Sun?

    The solar wind contains both ions (protons and heavier nuclei) and electrons and is electrically neutral, so the Earth is not developing a charge.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  30. Variations in Solar Wind

    I am studying solar wind and have a few questions -- How does solar wind vary with time? How does the intensity of solar wind vary? How does the solar wind affect the Earth?

    The density, temperature, and velocity of the solar wind all vary with time in a pretty complicated way. The magnetic field associated with the solar wind also varies in amplitude and direction. The ACE spacecraft, currently at the Earth-Sun libration point (L1) a million miles "upstream" of Earth in the solar wind, measures all of these quantities. You can check ACE Browse Data and ACE Real-Time Solar Wind sites for plots of the solar wind parameters (look at MAG and SWEPAM data).

    The normal solar wind doesn't have much effect on the Earth (it's deflected by the Earth's magnetic field), but bursts of plasma and magnetic field, called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), that travel with the solar wind from active regions on the Sun, can cause "geomagnetic storms", which is what NOAA is trying to predict with ACE. See the NOAA (ACE Real-Time Solar Wind) page above for more about these.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  31. Solar Wind Erosion

    What is the amount of erosion caused by the solar winds, and how much is recovered in the form of meteorites?

    If you are asking about erosion of the Earth's surface, the solar wind doesn't really make it through the atmosphere or the Earth's magnetic field. Even on the moon, which has no atmosphere or magnetic field, the solar wind doesn't knock atoms off the surface fast enough to escape the moon's gravity, so there isn't any lunar erosion either. The Earth does lose some of the gas in its atmosphere just by random diffusion away from the Earth, but it is not as much as the approximately one ton per hour that the Earth gains from micrometeorites.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  32. How Big is the Heliosphere?

    How far is it from the Sun to the edge of the heliosphere (on average)?

    It's not precisely known, since we haven't gotten a spacecraft out that far yet. The heliopause, which is the boundary between the gas from the Sun and the gas of interstellar space, is probably between 150 and 300 AU out (150 to 300 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun) in the direction that the Sun is traveling. There is a tail in the other direction (just like the Earth's magnetosphere) that extends furthur.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  33. Copernicus' Heliocentric Theory

    Where can I find an illustration and information about Copernicus' heliocentric theory?

    I found several good links on the WWW. There's one at the University of California, one at Minnesota State University, and one at the University of Kentucky.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  34. Does the Sun Revolve Around Something?

    I had a discussion with a friend about how the Earth revolves around the Sun. He stated that the Sun does not revolve around anything. I disagreed. If our moon revolves around us, and we revolve around the Sun, I don't see why it would stop there. Does our Sun or our Galaxy revolve around something? Are all objects in space in some kind of motion?

    The Sun (and all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy) revolves about the center of the Galaxy. It takes about 200 million years to go around once. The Milky Way is also moving relative to the local group of galaxies. Gravity works even across extremely large distances. Pretty much everything in the Universe is moving, due to gravity and the initial velocity obtained in the Big Bang.

    Dr. Eric Christian

  35. How Long to Drive to the Sun?

    If there were a highway from the Earth to the Sun, how long would it take to get to the Sun, driving at 65 miles per hour?

    If the highway is straight, and you drive non-stop 24 hours a day with no meal or bathroom breaks, it should take 163 years and 120 days to get to the Sun from the Earth:

     

      93,000,000 miles/65 mph = 1,430,769 hours
      1,430,769/24 hours in a day = 59,615 days
      59,615/365 days in a year = 163 years and 120 days

       

    If you figure out how to do this with current gas prices, please let us know!

    Beth Jacob





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