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Stars & Galaxies

AST 104 - Spring 2011 WCH H109 - TR 2:00 p.m.

Lecture 10 - The Sun


General Properties of the Sun Solar Energy The Solar Interior

Why study the Sun?

The Sun provides the energy to support life here on Earth The Sun is the closest star, providing a unique opportunity to study in detail how stars work

The Sun is 93 million miles from Earth. It takes sunlight around 8 minutes to make the journey.

The diameter of the Sun is about 860,000 miles, or 108 times the Earths diameter. The mass of the Sun is 2x1030 kg, about 333,000 times the mass of the Earth.



The Sun is made of various gases, mostly hydrogen and helium.

Other Gases 2% Helium 25%

Consequently the Sun does not have a solid surface like the Earth

Hydrogen 73%

Using surface features on the Sun such as sunspots we can observe its rotation. The Sun has a differential rotation of 25 days at its equator and 35 days near the poles.

How does the Sun shine?

The Sun emits energy in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The peak of the Solar spectrum is in the yellow part of visible light.

Luminosity is the rate at which electromagnetic energy is emitted by a star. The Solar luminosity is about 3.85 x 1026 watts. This is enough energy each second to supply the Earth for about 5 billion years at the current level of consumption.

Only a tiny fraction of the total energy output of the Sun reaches the Earths surface. The average amount of energy reaching the Earths surface is 1,370 watts per square meter.

The source of the Suns energy was only discovered during the 20th century. In the 1800s, Helmholtz and Kelvin suggested that the Sun was powered by gradual contraction, radiating energy as it shrank. Unfortunately this would only power the Sun for a few hundred million years.

In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed that mass and energy can be converted from one to the other, with his famous equation . Around this time, radioactive processes were discovered, in which energy is released from the atomic nucleus. During the 1930s, Hans Bethe formulated the theory of Solar nuclear reactions.

Nuclear Fusion

In the core of the Sun, energy is generated when nuclear particles are fused together. The fusion process combines four protons into a helium nucleus, and releases some energy.

The Helium nucleus has 0.7% less mass than the original four protons. This 0.7% of mass is converted into energy (and some other particles) during the fusion process.

Since we know the total energy output of the Sun, we can calculate that nearly 5 million tons of matter must be converted into energy every second. This in turn requires that 626 billion kg of Hydrogen be transformed into 621 billion kg of helium every second.

Internal Structure of the Sun

The energy generated in the Solar core generates a huge outward pressure. This outward pressure away from the core is balanced by the weight of material towards the core, a condition known as hydrostatic equilibrium. As the weight of material is greatest at the center of the Sun, this is where the pressure is also greatest.

The pressure at the center of the Sun is thought to be about 200 billion times that at the surface of the Earth. The huge temperatures and pressures within the core allow nuclear fusion to take place. The Solar core extends outwards to about 25% of the the Suns radius. The rest of the Solar interior is dominated by precesses which transfer energy from the core to the surface.

Energy Transport
Energy can be transferred in three ways:

Conduction Convection Radiation

Conduction is the transfer of energy within solids, and is not signicant within the Sun. Convection is the transfer of energy within a liquid or gas by means of motion of the material. Radiation is the transfer of energy by electromagnetic waves.

Convection occurs near the surface of the Sun, in the Convection Zone. Radiation occurs deeper within the Solar interior in the Radiative Zone.

The high density of material in the Sun means that radiation only travels a short distance (about 1cm) before being absorbed and reemitted. It takes up to a million years for photons created in the core to reach the surface of the Sun.

Solar Neutrinos

The Standard Model is the generally accepted theory of Solar energy production. The model predicts that so many neutrinos are produced by the Sun that 65 billion of them pass through each of us every second. Neutrinos react very little with ordinary matter, so detecting them is very difcult.

Because Neutrinos interact very weakly with matter, they pass though the Solar interior very rapidly. This means that if we can detect neutrinos from the Sun, we can obtain information about the core of the Sun within a few minutes after their creation. This is compared the the many thousands of years it takes light to escape from the interior of the Sun.

The Sudbury Neutrino Detector

The Standard Model of particle physics predicted the number of neutrinos we should expect to see from the Sun. However, detectors could only observe about 1/3 of the expected number of neutrinos. Either not as many neutrinos are made inside the Sun, or not all of them reach the Earth.

In 1998, experimental evidence conrmed a theory that neutrinos can vary from one form to another. Fewer neutrinos than expected had been detected because most of them had become a different kind of neutrino before they reached Earth. This provided evidence that our theories about fusion in the solar core are reasonably correct.

Solar Neutrinos and the Standard Model

The Standard Model is the generally accepted theory of Solar energy production. The model predicts that so many neutrinos are produced by the Sun that 65 billion of them pass through each of us every second. Neutrinos react very little with ordinary matter, so detecting them is very difcult.

Neutrino detectors only found about 60% of the neutrinos predicted by the Standard Model. A specially built detector in Sudbury, Canada demonstrated that Solar neutrinos oscillated between three different types of neutrino. Measuring all three types of neutrino, the total number agrees with the prediction of the standard model. The Sudbury Neutrino Detector


In 1962 it was discovered that the Sun vibrates. The pulsations are caused by waves, similar to sound waves, produced by convective motions in the Sun. Helioseismology is the study of the propagation of these waves. These waves provide information about the interior of the Sun.

The Solar Atmosphere

The Solar atmosphere is divided into three regions:

The Photosphere The Chromosphere The Corona

The Photosphere

The visible surface of the Sun. The part of the Solar atmosphere that emits light into space. It appears darker at the edges because we see down to a shallower depth. The temperature varies from 6,500 K deep down to 4,400 K at the outer edge.

The base of the photosphere shows granulation. This is the division of the Solar surface into small convection cells. Granules are areas where hot material (light areas) is rising from below and then descending (dark surroundings).

The Chromosphere

A region between the photosphere and the corona. Has a deep red color from hydrogen emission. Only visible to the eye as a ash of red during a total solar eclipse.

Sunspots & Solar Activity

Sunspots were rst recorded by the Chinese in the 5th century B.C. Galileo was one of the rst Europeans to report seeing sunspots. Sunspots are temporary features which last from a few hours to a few months.

Sunspots occur where the Suns magnetic eld is 1,000 times as dense as in surrounding regions. Sunspots are about 1,500 K cooler than the surrounding photosphere, which is why they appear dark.

Sunspots often appear in pairs. One has a north magnetic pole and the other a south magnetic pole.

In 1851, the sunspot cycle was discovered, which lasts 11 years. Over 11 years the number of sunspots increases from zero to a maximum number and back to zero.

The location of sunspots on the Solar surface changes during the sunspot cycle. They rst appear about 35 from the equator and move to the equator over the 11 year cycle.

Buttery Diagram

During a sunspot cycle the Solar magnetic eld becomes increasingly twisted. After 11 years the magnetic eld reverses polarity and the cycle begins again.

The Corona

The corona is much hotter than the photosphere (over 1 million K). Is most easily visible during a total solar eclipse. Disrupted by active features such as spicules, laments, ares and prominences.

Coronal Loop Flare Spicules


General Properties Solar Energy The Solar Interior The Solar Atmosphere