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The sun warms our planet every day,
provides the light by which we see and
is absolutely necessary for life on Earth.
In this article, we will examine the
fascinating world of our nearest star.
We will look at the parts of the sun, the
amazing way it makes light and heat,
and its major features.
Because we see the sun everyday, we tend to take it completely for granted. But if you think about it, you come up with lots of questions such as:
Is the sun like other stars?
The answers to these questions are what make the sun so interesting!
The sun is a star, just like the other stars we see at night. The difference is distance -- the
Officially, the sun is classified as a G2 type star based on its temperature and the
wavelengths orsp ec t ru m of light that it emits. The sun is an "average" star, merely one
of billions of stars that orbit the center of our galaxy.
The sun has "burned" for more than 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so for several billion more. It is a massive collection of gas, mostly hydrogen and helium. Because it is so massive, it has immense gravity, enough gravitational force to hold all of hydrogen and helium together (and to hold all of the planets in their orbits around the sun!).
SOHO is a project of international cooperation between the
European Space Agency (ESA) and the U.S. National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA).
We will see that all of the major features of the sun can be explained by the nuclear
reactions that make its energy, the magnetic fields that are caused by the movements of
the gas, and the immense gravity.
The core starts from the center and extends to 25 percent of the sun's radius. Here, gravity pulls all of the mass inward and creates an intense pressure. The pressure is high enough to force atoms of hydrogen to come together in nuclear fusion reactions. Two atoms of hydrogen are combined to create helium-4 and energy in several steps:
The helium-4 atoms are less massive than the two hydrogen atoms that started the
process, so the difference in mass was converted to energy as described by Einstein's
theory of relativity (E=mc2). The energy is emitted in various forms of light (ultraviolet
light, X-rays, visible light, infrared, microwaves and radio waves). The sun also emits
energized particles (neutrinos, protons) that make up the solar wind. This energy strikes
Earth, where it warms the planet, drives our weather and provides energy for life. We are
not harmed by most of the radiation or solar wind because the Earth's atmosphere protects
us. As shown in Figure 2, we can use special telescopes aboard the satellite SOHO to
look at the various wavelengths of light the sun emits and get images that scientists can
The radiative zone extends 55 percent of the sun's radius from the core. In this zone, the
energy from the core is carried outward by photons. As one photon is made, it travels
about 1 micron (1 millionth of a meter) before being absorbed by a gas molecule. Upon
absorption, the gas molecule is heated and re-emits another photon of the same
wavelength. The re-emitted photon travels another micron before being absorbed by
another gas molecule and the cycle repeats itself; each interaction between photon and gas
molecule takes time. Approximately 1025 absorptions and re-emissions take place in this
zone before a photon reaches the surface, so there is a significant time delay between a
photon made in the core and one that reaches the surface.
The convective zone, which is the final 30 percent of the sun's radius, is dominated by
convection currents that carry the energy outward to the surface. These convection
currents are rising movements of hot gas next to falling movements of cool gas, much like
what you can see if you placed glitter in a simmering pot of water. The convection
currents carry photons outward to the surface faster than the radiative transfer that occurs
in the core and radiative zone. With so many interactions occurring between photons and
gas molecules in the radiative and convection zones, it takes a photon approximately
Figure 2. Composite image from all of SOHO's instruments. The interior image
from Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) illustrates the rivers of plasma underneath
the surface. The surface was imaged with the extreme ultraviolet imaging telescope
(EIT) at 304 angstroms. Both images were superimposed on a Large Angle
Spectroscopic Coronograph (LASCO) C2 image, which blocks the sun so that it
can view the corona. The image shows the range of SOHO's research from the
solar interior out to the corona.
Now bringing you back...
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