Compared with the billions of other stars in the universe, the sun is unremarkable. But for Earth and the other planets that revolve around it, the sun is a powerful center of attention. It holds the solar system together; pours life-giving light, heat, and energy on Earth; and generates space weather.

The sun is a big star. At about 864,000 miles (1.4 million kilometers) wide, it could hold 109 planet Earths across its surface. If the sun were a hollow ball, more than a million Earths could stuff inside it. But the sun isn't hollow. It's filled with scorching hot gases that account for more than 99.8 percent of the total mass in the solar system. How hot? The temperature is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius) on the surface and more than 28 million degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 million Celsius) at the core.

Deep in the sun's core, nuclear fusion reactions convert hydrogen to helium, which generates energy. Particles of light called photons carry this energy through the sun's spherical shell, called the radiative zone, to the top layer of the solar interior, the convection zone. There, boiling motions of gases (like in a lava lamp) transfer the energy to the surface. This journey takes more than a million years.

The sun's surface, or atmosphere, is divided into three regions: the photosphere, the chromosphere, and the solar corona. The photosphere is the visible surface of the sun and the lowest layer of the atmosphere. Just above the photosphere are the chromosphere and the corona, which also emit visible light but are only seen during a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the Earth and sun.

Solar Wind and Flares

In addition to light, the sun radiates heat and a steady stream of charged particles known as the solar wind. The wind blows about 280 miles (450 kilometers) a second throughout the solar system. Every so often, a patch of particles will burst from the sun in a solar flare, which can disrupt satellite communications and knock out power on Earth. Flares usually stem from the activity of sunspots, cool regions of the photosphere related to a shifting magnetic field inside the sun.

Like many energy sources, the sun is not forever. It is already about 4.5 billion years old and has used up nearly half of the hydrogen in its core. The sun will continue to burn through the hydrogen for another five billion years or so, and then helium will become its primary fuel. The sun will expand to about a hundred times its current size, swallowing Earth and other planets. It will burn as a red giant for another billion years and then collapse into a white dwarf about the size of planet Earth.


'Live From Space' March 14

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