Every day, he shows up; and without him, life here on Earth is impossible. Not only Earth, but the entire solar system depends on this one “hell” of a boss to survive. Yes, he’s literally like hell, though he seems like a god; no wonder ancient civilizations worshiped him, and even designated a day of the week to him. Dear friends, we’re talking about the Sun — the head honcho, el grande, the one and only “King of the Solar System.”
Related media: The Sun: Crash Course Astronomy #10
Whence Cometh The Sun?
The sun makes up a whopping 99.9 percent of the entire solar system, so the rest aren’t that significant, in comparison. The sun is one of more than 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, orbiting the galactic center some 25,000 lightyears away, and taking 250 million years to complete its revolution. The sun is part of a generation of stars known as Population I — a classification of stars relatively rich in elements heavier than helium. Older generations include Population II, and an earlier generation of Population III might have existed long before the sun’s formation, although no stars of this generation aren’t known yet.
According to several theories, the sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust known as a solar nebula. This giant nebula collapsed in itself due to its own gravity, and as a result flattened into an accretion disk that pulled much of the matter towards the center to form the sun. For now, its middle aged, and has enough nuclear energy to burn for another 5 billion years more. Over time, it will swell up to become a red giant, eventually shedding off its outer layers while its core collapses to become a white dwarf. This will also fade into its final phase and become a black dwarf, theoretically.
For centuries, ancient cultures believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Famous of ‘em was ancient Greek scholar and philosopher Ptolemy, who even proposed a “geocentric” universe in the year 150 Before the Common Era (B.C.E) — the concept of the sun as the center of the universe. Later in 1543, Dutch astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a “heliocentric” (sun-centered) model of the solar system; and finally in 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei made discoveries of moons around Jupiter which confirmed that not all celestial bodies circled the Earth.
What The “Hell” Is The Sun Made Of?
The sun has an atmosphere that’s divided into several zones and layers. From the inside out, there is the core that has two zones: the radioactive and convective zones, the solar atmosphere consists of the photosphere, chromosphere, a transition layer, and the corona, also known as the solar wind — an outflow of solar radiation into interplanetary space.
The core: it extends from the center to roughly a quarter up the way to the surface. This makes up about two percent of the sun’s volume, almost 15 times the density of lead, and nearly half the mass of the sun. The radioactive zone extends from the core to 70 percent up the way to the surface. It makes up 32 percent of the volume, and 48 percent its mass. The convection zone reaches up to the surface, making up 66 percent of the volume, and little over two percent its mass.
There are two kinds of convection cells here: granulation cells, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) wide; and super–granulation cells, about 30,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) in diameter. Light emitted from the core are scattered in these zones, so a photoncould take millions of years to reach the surface.
Photosphere: this is the lowest layer of the solar atmosphere that emits the light we often see. Finally! Its roughly 500 kilometers (300 miles) thick, and temperatures here are hellish; ranging from 6,125 degrees Celsius (11,000 degrees Fahrenheit) below, and 4,125 degrees Celsius (7,460 degrees Fahrenheit) above. Although much of the light is emitted from below.
Chromosphere: this is much higher and hotter, ranging from 19,725 degrees Celsius (35,500 degrees Fahrenheit) — apparently made up of spiky structures known as spicules, typically some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) across, and could get up to 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) high.
The transition layer and the corona: is a few hundred kilometers thick which emits light as ultraviolet rays. The corona is at the topmost of the surface made of loops as streams of ionized gas. Temperatures here range from 500,000 degrees Celsius (900,000 degrees Fahrenheit) to a mind-blowing 6 million degrees Celsius (10.8 million Fahrenheit). Now, that’s hell. This can even reach several tens of millions of degrees hotter in the event of a solar flare.
What’s Really Burning High Up There?
Aforementioned, the sun is just like any other star in the universe, made up of roughly 72 percent of hydrogen (despite being the lightest element there is), 26 percent of helium, and the remaining matter is made up of seven others — namely oxygen, carbon, neon, nitrogen, magnesium, silicon, and iron. In comparative ratio, for every one million hydrogen atoms of the sun’s mass, there are 98,000 helium atoms, 850 of oxygen, 360 of carbon, 120 of neon, 110 of nitrogen, 40 of magnesium, and 35 of silicon and iron.
Furthermore, the sun has a magnetic field that’s twice as strong as that of the Earth. This becomes highly concentrated in certain areas — reaching a maximum of 3,000 times more stronger than usual. The magnetic field develops several kinks and twist as the sun rotates rapidly at the equator than at higher latitudes, and also because the inner core rotates faster than the surface. These distortions creates several incredible features on the sun. From sunspots to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, the sun is pretty much a radioactive beast.
Flares are the most violent eruptions in the solar system, whereas coronal ejections are less violent — a single ejection could emit roughly 20 billion tons of matter into interplanetary space. Sunspots are relatively cool dark spots of entangled dense bundles of magnetic field that are aligned from the interior that eventually breakthrough to the surface. The solar magnetic activity determines the number of sunspots — ranging from a minimum of none to a maximum of roughly 250 spots or cluster, and back to a minimum. This is known as the solar cycle, which takes an average of 11 years long.
What else do you think we missed about the sun?
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sun, Oct 17, 2021.