7 Shining Facts About the Sun

NASA
NASA

Isaac Asimov described the solar system as the Sun, Jupiter, and debris. He wasn't wrong—the Sun is 99.8 percent of the mass of the solar system. But what is the giant ball of fire in the sky? How does it behave and what mysteries remain? Mental Floss spoke to Angelos Vourlidas, an astrophysicist and the supervisor of the Solar Section at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, to learn what scientists know about the Sun—and a few things they don't.

1. IT'S A GIANT NUCLEAR FUSION REACTOR.

The Sun is so incomprehensibly big that it's almost pointless to bother trying to imagine its size. Our star is about 860,000 miles across. It is so big that 1.3 million Earths could fit inside of it. The Sun is 4.5 billion years old, and should last for another 6.5 billion years. When it faces the final curtain, it will not go supernova, however, as lacks the mass for such an end. Rather, the Sun will grow to a red giant—destroying the Earth in the process, if we last that long, which we won't—and then contract down to become a white dwarf.

The Sun is 74 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium, with a few other elements thrown in for flavor, and every second, nuclear reactions at its core fuse hundreds of millions of tons of hydrogen into hundreds of millions of tons of helium, releasing the heat and light that we love so very much.

2. IT HAS A GALACTIC-SCALE ORBIT.

The Sun rotates, though not quite the same way as a terrestrial planet like the Earth. Like the gas and ice giants, the Sun's equator and poles complete their rotations at different times. It takes the Sun's equator 24 days to complete a rotation. Its poles poke along and rotate every 35 days. Meanwhile, the Sun actually has its own orbit. Moving at 450,000 miles per hour, the Sun is in orbit around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, making a full loop every 230 million years.

3. IT'S HOT IN ODD WAYS.


The solar corona as captured every two hours for four days. Red is cool (~80,000°F), while yellow is hot (~2,800,000°F).
Angelos Vourlidas, JHU/APL

The Sun's temperatures leave astrophysicists puzzled. At its core, it reaches a staggering 27,000,000°F. Its surface is a frosty 10,000°F, which, as NASA notes, is still hot enough to make diamonds boil. Here's the weird part, though. Once you get into the higher parts of the Sun's corona, temperatures again rise to 3,500,000°F. Why? Nobody knows!

4. THE SUN HAS AN ATMOSPHERE—AND THE EARTH IS INSIDE IT.

If you saw the total solar eclipse earlier this year, you saw the Sun turn black, ringed by a shimmering white corona. That halo was part of the Sun's atmosphere. And it's a lot bigger than that. In fact, the Earth is inside of the Sun's atmosphere. "It basically goes as far away as Jupiter," Vourlidas tells Mental Floss. The Sun is a semi-chaotic system. Every 100 years or so, the Sun seems to go into a small "sleep," and for two or three decades, its activity is reduced. When it wakes, it becomes much more active and violent. Scientists are not sure why that is. Presently we are in one of those solar lulls.

5. THE IRON IN YOUR BLOOD COMES FROM THE SUN'S SIBLINGS.

The Sun lacks a solid core. At 27,000,000°F, it's all plasma down there. "That's where most of the heavy elements like iron and uranium are created—at the cores of stars," Vourlidas says. "When the stars explode, they are released into space. Planets form out of that debris, and that's where we get the same iron in our blood and the carbon in our cells. They were made in some star." Not ours, obviously, but a star that exploded in our neighborhood before our Sun was born. Other elements created from the cores of stars include gold, silver, and plutonium. That is what Carl Sagan meant when he said that we are children of the stars.

6. THE HOLY GRAIL OF SUN SCIENCE IS UNDERSTANDING ERUPTIONS.

The ability to predict solar storms is the holy grail for astrophysicists who study the Sun. During a coronal mass ejection, a billion tons of plasma material can be blown from the Sun at millions of miles per hour. The eruptions carry around 300 petawatts of energy—that's 50,000 times the amount of energy that humans use in a single year. As the structures travel from the Sun, they expand, and when they hit the Earth, a percentage of their energy is imparted. Those impacts can create havoc. Spacecraft are affected, airliners receive surges of x-rays, and the energy grid can be disrupted—one day perhaps catastrophically so. "Our models say it can happen every 200 years," says Vourlidas, "but the Sun doesn't know about our models."

The last such strike on the Earth is believed to have occurred in 1859. The telegraph system collapsed, but the effect on society was minimal overall. (The widespread use of electric lighting and the first power grids were still decades away.) If the Earth were to sustain a similar such destructive event today, the effects might be devastating. "It is the most violent phenomenon in our solar system," Vourlidas explains. "We need to know when such an amount of plasma has left the Sun, whether it will hit the Earth, and how hard it is going to slap us." Such foresight would allow spacecraft to power down sensitive instruments and power grids to switch off where necessary, among other things.

7. NASA'S NEXT STOP: THE SUN.


Wind moving off of the Sun in visible light. If you were in a spaceship and didn't melt, that's what you would see. The zooming effect simulates what an imager on the Parker Solar Probe will see.
Angelos Vourlidas, JHU/APL

Next year, NASA will launch the Applied Physics Laboratory's Parker Solar Probe to "kiss" the Sun. It will travel to within 4 million miles of our star—the closest we've ever come—and will study the corona and the solar wind. "At the moment, the only way we understand that system is by seeing what the properties of the wind are at Earth, and then trying to extrapolate back toward the Sun," says Vourlidas. "It's an indirect exercise. But the probe will measure the wind—how fast it is, how dense, what is the magnetic field—across multiple locations as it orbits the Sun." Once scientists get those measurements, theorists will attempt to devise new models of the solar wind, and ultimately help better predict solar storms and space weather events.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated. 

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to See It

NASA/Getty Images
NASA/Getty Images

The Leonid meteor shower will be making its annual appearance in the sky this weekend. As NPR reports, the best time to catch it will be late Saturday night into Sunday morning (November 17-18)—so if you really want to catch this dazzling light show, you may want to drink some coffee to help you stay up.

The waxing gibbous Moon will dull the meteors’ shine a little, so plan to start stargazing after the Moon has set but before dawn on Sunday. (You can use timeanddate.com to figure out the moonset time in your area. The site also features an interactive meteor shower sky map to track visibility conditions.)

If you'll be in parts of the South or Midwest this weekend, you're in luck. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Nevada are expected to enjoy the best view of the Leonids this time around, according to Popular Mechanics.

The Leonids occur every year around November 17 or 18, when Earth drifts across the long trail of debris left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet takes 33 years to complete its orbit around the Sun, and when it reaches perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun), a Leonid storm may occur depending on the density of the comet's existing debris. This sometimes results in hundreds of thousand of meteors streaking across the sky per hour, viewable from Earth. The last Leonid storm occurred in 2001, but Earth may not see dense debris clouds until 2099, according to the American Meteor Society.

This year, if skies are clear and you can secure a secluded spot away from city lights, you might be able to see around 15 to 20 meteors per hour. They travel at 44 miles per second “and are considered to be some of the fastest meteors out there,” NASA says. They’re also known for their “fireballs”—explosions of light and color—which tend to last longer than a typical meteor streak.

[h/t NPR]

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

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