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 Northern Lights May be Visible in New York, Michigan, and Illinois on Saturday

iStock.com/den-belitsky
iStock.com/den-belitsky

The Northern Lights, a meteorological event most common to areas north of the Arctic Circle, may be visible over parts of America this weekend, Newsweek reports. Due to a solar storm, the light show may appear Saturday night over states in the northern part of the contiguous U.S., including New York, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington state.

Aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights, occur when solar particles react to gases in Earth's atmosphere. Magnetic energy exaggerates this effect, which is why auroras most often appear at the geomagnetic poles where Earth's magnetic field is strongest. Rare circumstances can produce this phenomenon at lower latitudes, which may be the case this weekend.

On Wednesday, March 20, a solar flare sent a blast of solar particles toward Earth. The resulting geomagnetic storm could make for a vibrant and colorful aurora reaching as far south as New York and Wisconsin.

To catch the spectacle, look up at the night sky on Saturday, March 23. People in areas with minimal light pollution have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, though cloudy weather may make them hard to see.

[h/t Newsweek]

5 Fast Facts About the Spring Equinox

iStock.com/AHPhotoswpg
iStock.com/AHPhotoswpg

The northern hemisphere has officially survived a long winter of Arctic temperatures, bomb cyclones, and ice tsunamis. Spring starts March 20, which means warmer weather and longer days are around the corner. To celebrate the spring equinox, hear are some facts about the event.

1. The spring equinox arrives at 5:58 p.m.

The first day of spring is today, but the spring equinox will only be here for a brief time. At 5:58 p.m. Eastern Time, the Sun will be perfectly in line with the equator, which results in both the northern and southern hemispheres receiving equal amounts of sunlight throughout the day. After the vernal equinox has passed, days will start to become shorter for the Southern Hemisphere and longer up north.

2. The Equinox isn't the only time you can balance an egg.

You may have heard the myth that you can balance on egg on its end during the vernal equinox, and you may have even tried the experiment in school. The idea is that the extra gravitational pull from the Sun when it's over the equator helps the egg stand up straight. While it is possible to balance an egg, the trick has nothing to do with the equinox: You can make an egg stand on its end by setting it on a rough surface any day of the year.

3. Not every place gets equal night and day.

The equal night and day split between the northern and southern hemispheres isn't distributed evenly across all parts of the world. Though every region gets approximately 12 hours of sunlight the day of the vernal equinox, some places get a little more (the day is 12 hours and 15 minute in Fairbanks, Alaska), and some get less (it's 12 hours and 6 minutes in Miami).

4. The name means Equal Night.

The word equinox literally translates to equal ("equi") and night ("nox") in Latin. The term vernal means "new and fresh," and comes from the Latin word vernus for "of spring."

5. The 2019 spring equinox coincides with a supermoon.

On March 20, the day the Sun lines up with equator, the Moon will reach the closest point to Earth in its orbit. The Moon will also be full, making it the third supermoon of 2019. A full moon last coincided with the first day of spring on March 20, 1981, and it the two events won't occur within 24 hours of each other again until 2030.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER