The Sun

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image shows large magnetically active regions and a pair of curving erupting prominences on June 28, 2000 during the current solar cycle 23 maximum. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. Magnetically active regions cause the principal total solar irradiance variations during each solar cycle. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)

The Sun is the center of the Solar System and the source of all life and energy here on Earth. It accounts for more than 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System and it’s gravity dominates all the planets and objects that orbit it. Since the beginning of history, human beings have understood the Sun’s importance to our world, it’s seasons, the diurnal cycle, and the life-cycle of plants.

Because of this, the Sun has been at the center of many ancient culture’s mythologies and systems of worship. From the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas to the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Druids, the Sun was a central deity because it was seen as the bringer of all light and life. In time, our understanding of the Sun has changed and become increasingly empirical. But that has done nothing to diminish it’s significance.

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The Sun may look like just a mass of incandescent gas (plasma, really), but it’s actually broken up into layers. The chromosphere is relatively thin region of the Sun that’s just above the photosphere.

The photosphere is the region of the Sun that we see. It measures an average temperature of almost 5,800 kelvin and produces the visible radiation. This is the point where photons generated inside the Sun can finally leap out into space. The chromosphere measures just 2,000 km, and it’s just outside the photosphere.

Even though it’s very thin, the chromosphere changes dramatically in density, from the top down to the photosphere, the density of the chromosphere increases by a factor of 5 million. The upper boundary of the chromosphere is the called the solar transition region, above which is known as the corona.

One surprising mystery is that the chromosphere is actually hotter than the photosphere. While the photosphere hovers around 5,800 kelvin, the temperature of the chromosphere varies between 4,500 K and 20,000 K. Even though it’s more distant from the center of the Sun, the chromosphere is hotter than the photosphere. Astronomers think turbulence in the Sun’s atmosphere might somehow cause this extra heating.

The chromosphere is difficult to see without special equipment because the light from the much brighter photosphere washes it out. It has a reddish color, but you can only really see it during a total solar eclipse.

One of the recognizable features of the chromosphere are spicules. These are fingers of gas that kind of look like grass growing on the surface of the Sun. These can rise up in the chromosphere and then disappear again within 10 minutes.

We’ve written several episodes about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Sun’s atmosphere, and here’s an article about how solar astronomers are getting better at predicting the solar wind.

If you’d like more info on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.