Solar System/The Sun
The Sun orbits the center of its galaxy, the Milky Way, about once every 240 million years.
The Sun rotates relative to the distant stars once every 25.05 Earth-days at its equator and once every 34.3 Earth-days at the poles.
Mass: 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons, or about 330,000 times the mass of the Earth.
Diameter: 870,000 miles [1.4 million km]
Age: 4.5 billion years
Average Distance from the Earth: 93 million miles [149.6 million km]
Luminosity: 390 quintillion megawatts
Composition: 91.2 % hydrogen, 8.7 % helium, 0.1 % other chemical elements
Surface Temperature: 10,000 degrees Farienight [5,500 degrees Celsius]
Temperature at Core: 25 million degrees Farienight[15 milllion degrees Celsius]
Core Density: 12 times that of solid lead
A balance of opposing forces
The solar surface
Sunspots and faculae
Sunspots are relatively dark areas on the radiating 'surface' (photosphere) of the Sun where intense magnetic activity inhibits convection and cools the photosphere. Faculae are slightly brighter areas that form around sunspot groups as the flow of energy to the photosphere is re-established and both the normal flow and the sunspot-blocked energy elevate the radiating 'surface' temperature. Scientists have speculated on possible relationships between sunspots and solar luminosity since the historical sunspot area record began in the 17th century. Correlations are now known to exist with decreases in luminosity caused by sunspots (generally < - 0.3 %) and increases (generally < + 0.05 %) caused both by faculae that are associated with active regions as well as the magnetically active 'bright network'. Modulation of the solar luminosity by magnetically active regions was confirmed by satellite measurements of total solar irradiance (TSI) by the ACRIM1 experiment on the Solar Maximum Mission (launched in 1980). The modulations were later confirmed in the results of the ERB experiment launched on the Nimbus 7 satellite in 1978. Sunspots in magnetically active regions are cooler and 'darker' than the average photosphere and cause temporary decreases in TSI of as much as 0.3 %. Faculae in magnetically active regions are hotter and 'brighter' than the average photosphere and cause temporary increases in TSI. The net effect during periods of enhanced solar magnetic activity is increased radiant output of the sun because faculae are larger and persist longer than sunspots.
There had been some suggestion that variations in the solar diameter might cause variations in output. But recent work, mostly from the Michelson Doppler Imager instrument on SOHO, shows these changes to be small, about 0.001% (Dziembowski et al., 2001).
Various studies have been made using sunspot number (for which records extend over hundreds of years) as a proxy for solar output (for which good records only extend for a few decades). Also, ground instruments have been calibrated by comparison with high-altitude and orbital instruments. Researchers have combined present readings and factors to adjust historical data. Other proxy data — such as the abundance of cosmogenic isotopes — have been used to infer solar magnetic activity and thus likely brightness.
Sunspot activity has been measured using the Wolf number for about 300 years. This index (also known as the Zürich number) uses both the number of sunspots and the number of groups of sunspots to compensate for variations in measurement. A 2003 study by Ilya Usoskin of the University of Oulu, Finland found that sunspots had been more frequent since the 1940s than in the previous 1150 years.
Distribution of sunspots
Granules on the photosphere of the Sun are caused by convection currents (thermal columns, Bénard cells) of plasma within the Sun's convective zone. The grainy appearance of the solar photosphere is produced by the tops of these convective cells and is called granulation.
The rising part of the granules is located in the center where the plasma is hotter. The outer edge of the granules is darker due to the cooler descending plasma. In addition to the visible appearance, Doppler shift measurements of the light from individual granules provides evidence for the convective nature of the granules.
A typical granule has a diameter on the order of 1,000 kilometers and lasts 8 to 20 minutes before dissipating. Below the photosphere is a layer of "supergranules" up to 30,000 kilometers in diameter with lifespans of up to 24 hours.
Analysis of the solar spectrum
Observation of the Solar atmosphere
A journey through the sun
A prominence is a large, bright feature extending outward from the Sun's surface, often in a loop shape. Prominences are anchored to the Sun's surface in the photosphere, and extend outwards into the Sun's corona. While the corona consists of extremely hot ionized gases, known as plasma, which do not emit much visible light, prominences contain much cooler plasma, similar in composition to that of the chromosphere. A prominence forms over timescales of about a day, and stable prominences may persist in the corona for several months. Some prominences break apart and give rise to coronal mass ejections. Scientists are currently researching how and why prominences are formed.
A typical prominence extends over many thousands of kilometers; the largest on record was observed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1997 and was some 350,000 km (216,000 miles) long  – roughly half the radius of the Sun or 28 times the diameter of the Earth. The mass contained within a prominence is typically on the order of 100 billion tonnes of material.
When a prominence is viewed from a different perspective so that it is against the sun instead of against space, it appears darker than the surrounding background. This formation is instead called a solar filament. It is possible for a projection to be both a filament and a prominence. Flocculi (plural of flocculus) is another term for these filaments, and dark flocculi typically describes the appearance of solar prominences when viewed against the solar disk in certain wavelengths.
A solar flare is a large explosion in the Sun's atmosphere that can release as much as 6 × 1025 joules of energy. The term is also used to refer to similar phenomena in other stars, where the term stellar flare applies.
Solar flares affect all layers of the solar atmosphere (photosphere, corona, and chromosphere), heating plasma to tens of millions of kelvins and accelerating electrons, protons, and heavier ions to near the speed of light. They produce radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths, from radio waves to gamma rays. Most flares occur in active regions around sunspots, where intense magnetic fields penetrate the photosphere to link the corona to the solar interior. Flares are powered by the sudden (timescales of minutes to tens of minutes) release of magnetic energy stored in the corona. If a solar flare is exceptionally powerful, it can cause coronal mass ejections.
X-rays and UV radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth's ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications. Direct radio emission at decimetric wavelengths may disturb operation of radars and other devices operating at these frequencies.
Solar flares were first observed on the Sun by Richard Christopher Carrington and independently by Richard Hodgson in 1859 as localized visible brightenings of small areas within a sunspot group. Stellar flares have also been observed on a variety of other stars.
The frequency of occurrence of solar flares varies, from several per day when the Sun is particularly "active" to less than one each week when the Sun is "quiet". Large flares are less frequent than smaller ones. Solar activity varies with an 11-year cycle (the solar cycle). At the peak of the cycle there are typically more sunspots on the Sun, and hence more solar flares.
The solor corona
A corona is a type of plasma "atmosphere" of the Sun or other celestial body, extending millions of kilometers into space, most easily seen during a total solar eclipse, but also observable in a coronagraph. The Latin root of the word corona means crown.
During a total solar eclipse, the solar corona can be seen with the naked eye. The high temperature of the corona gives it unusual spectral features, which led some to suggest, in the 19th century, that it contained a previously unknown element, "coronium". These spectral features have since been traced to highly ionized Iron (Fe-XIV) which indicates a plasma temperature in excess of 106 kelvin.
Light from the corona comes from three primary sources, which are called by different names although all of them share the same volume of space. The K-corona (K for kontinuierlich, "continuous" in German) is created by sunlight scattering off free electrons; Doppler broadening of the reflected photospheric absorption lines completely obscures them, giving the spectral appearance of a continuum with no absorption lines. The F-corona (F for Fraunhofer) is created by sunlight bouncing off dust particles, and is observable because its light contains the Fraunhofer absorption lines that are seen in raw sunlight; the F-corona extends to very high elongation angles from the Sun, where it is called the Zodiacal light. The E-corona (E for emission) is due to spectral emission lines produced by ions that are present in the coronal plasma; it may be observed in broad or forbidden or hot spectral emission lines and is the main source of information about the corona's composition.
Analysis of the coronal spectrum
Discoveries about the corona in the space age
The solar wind
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 10 and 100 eV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time. These particles can escape the Sun's gravity because of their high kinetic energy and the high temperature of the corona.
The solar wind creates the heliosphere, a vast bubble in the interstellar medium that surrounds the solar system. Other phenomena include geomagnetic storms that can knock out power grids on Earth, the aurorae (northern and southern lights), and the plasma tails of comets that always point away from the Sun.
The solar wind and Earth
Birth, life and death of the Sun
Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the surface of the Sun (the photosphere) that appear visibly as dark spots compared to surrounding regions. They are caused by intense magnetic activity, which inhibits convection, forming areas of reduced surface temperature. Although they are at temperatures of roughly 3,000–4,500 K (4,940–7,640 °F), the contrast with the surrounding material at about 5,780 K leaves them clearly visible as dark spots, as the intensity of a heated black body (closely approximated by the photosphere) is a function of T (temperature) to the fourth power. If the sunspot were isolated from the surrounding photosphere it would be brighter than an electric arc. Sunspots expand and contract as they move across the surface of the sun and can be as large as 80,000 kilometers (49,710 mi) in diameter, making the larger ones visible from Earth without the aid of a telescope.
Manifesting intense magnetic activity, sunspots host secondary phenomena such as coronal loops and reconnection events. Most solar flares and coronal mass ejections originate in magnetically active regions around visible sunspot groupings. Similar phenomena indirectly observed on stars are commonly called starspots and both light and dark spots have been measured.
The study of solar physics
Solar physics is the study of our Sun. It is a branch of astrophysics that specializes in exploiting and explaining the detailed measurements that are possible only for our closest star. It intersects with many disciplines of pure physics, astrophysics, and computer science, including fluid dynamics, plasma physics including magnetohydrodynamics, seismology, particle physics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, stellar evolution, space physics, spectroscopy, radiative transfer, applied optics, signal processing, computer vision, and computational physics.
Because the Sun is uniquely situated for close-range observing (other stars cannot be resolved with anything like the spatial or temporal resolution that the Sun can), there is a split between the related discipline of observational astrophysics (of distant stars) and observational solar physics. The Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society boasts about 600 members (in 2008), compared to several thousand in the parent organization.
A major thrust of current (2009) effort in the field of solar physics is integrated understanding of the entire solar system including the Sun and its effects throughout interplanetary space within the heliosphere and on planets and planetary atmospheres. Studies of phenomena that affect multiple systems in the heliosphere, or that are considered to fit within a heliospheric context, are called heliophysics, a new coinage that entered usage in the early years of the current millennium.