“Space weather” may sound like a contradiction. How can there be weather in the vacuum of space? Yet space weather, which refers to changing conditions in space, is an active field of research and can have profound effects on Earth. We are all familiar with the ups and downs of weather on Earth, and how powerful storms can be devastating for people and vegetation. Although we are separated from the Sun by a large distance as well as by the vacuum of space, we now understand that great outbursts on the Sun (solar storms, in effect) can cause changes in the atmosphere and magnetic field of Earth, sometimes even causing serious problems on the ground. In this chapter, we will explore the nature of the Sun’s outer layers, the changing conditions and activity there, and the ways that the Sun affects Earth.
By studying the Sun, we also learn much that helps us understand stars in general. The Sun is, in astronomical terms, a rather ordinary star—not unusually hot or cold, old or young, large or small. Indeed, we are lucky that the Sun is typical. Just as studies of Earth help us understand observations of the more distant planets, so too does the Sun serve as a guide to astronomers in interpreting the messages contained in the light we receive from distant stars. As you will learn, the Sun is dynamic, continuously undergoing change, balancing the forces of nature to keep itself in equilibrium. In this chapter, we describe the components of the Sun, how it changes with time, and how those changes affect Earth.
- 9.1: The Structure and Composition of the Sun
- The Sun, our star, has several layers beneath the visible surface: the core, radiative zone, and convective zone. These, in turn, are surrounded by a number of layers that make up the solar atmosphere. In order of increasing distance from the center of the Sun, they are the photosphere, with a temperature that ranges from 4500 K to about 6800 K; the chromosphere, with a typical temperature of 104 K; the transition region, a zone that may be only a few kilometers thick.
- 9.2: The Solar Cycle
- Sunspots are dark regions where the temperature is up to 2000 K cooler than the surrounding photosphere. Their motion across the Sun’s disk allows us to calculate how fast the Sun turns on its axis. The Sun rotates more rapidly at its equator, where the rotation period is about 25 days, than near the poles, where the period is slightly longer than 36 days. The number of visible sunspots varies according to a sunspot cycle that averages 11 years in length. Spots frequently occur in pairs.
- 9.3: Solar Activity above the Photosphere
- Signs of more intense solar activity, an increase in the number of sunspots, as well as prominences, plages, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections, all tend to occur in active regions—that is, in places on the Sun with the same latitude and longitude but at different heights in the atmosphere. Active regions vary with the solar cycle, just like sunspots do.
- 9.4: Space Weather
- Space weather is the effect of solar activity on our own planet, both in our magnetosphere and on Earth’s surface. Coronal holes allow more of the Sun’s material to flow out into space. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can cause auroras, disrupt communications, damage satellites, and cause power outages on Earth.
- 9.5: Sources of Sunshine- Thermal and Gravitational Energy
- The Sun produces an enormous amount of energy every second. Since Earth and the solar system are roughly 4.5 billion years old, this means that the Sun has been producing vast amounts for energy for a very, very long time. Neither chemical burning nor gravitational contraction can account for the total amount of energy radiated by the Sun during all this time.
- 9.6: Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
- Solar energy is produced by interactions of particles—that is, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons, and neutrinos. Specifically, the source of the Sun’s energy is the fusion of hydrogen to form helium. The series of reactions required to convert hydrogen to helium is called the proton-proton chain. A helium atom is about 0.71% less massive than the four hydrogen atoms that combine to form it, and that lost mass is converted to energy given by the formula \(E = mc^2\).
- 9.7: The Solar Interior - Theory
- Even though we cannot see inside the Sun, it is possible to calculate what its interior must be like. As input for these calculations, we use what we know about the Sun. It is made entirely of hot gas. Apart from some very tiny changes, the Sun is neither expanding nor contracting (it is in hydrostatic equilibrium) and puts out energy at a constant rate. Fusion of hydrogen occurs in the center of the Sun, and the energy generated is carried to the surface by radiation and then convection.
- 9.8: The Solar Interior - Observations
- Studies of solar oscillations (helioseismology) and neutrinos can provide observational data about the Sun’s interior. The technique of helioseismology has so far shown that the composition of the interior is much like that of the surface (except in the core, where some of the original hydrogen has been converted into helium), and that the convection zone extends about 30% of the way from the Sun’s surface to its center.
Thumbnail: The Sun—our local star—is quite average in many ways. However, that does not stop it from being a fascinating object to study. From solar flares and coronal mass ejections, like the one seen coming from the Sun in the top right of this image, the Sun is a highly dynamic body at the center of our solar system. This image combines two separate satellite pictures of the Sun—the inner one from the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the outer one from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. (credit: modification of work by ESA/NASA)
Contributors and Attributions
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).