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Physics LibreTexts

16: The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse

The Sun puts out an incomprehensible amount of energy—so much that its ultraviolet radiation can cause sunburns from 93 million miles away. It is also very old. As you learned earlier, evidence shows that the Sun formed about 4.5 billion years ago and has been shining ever since. How can the Sun produce so much energy for so long? The Sun’s energy output is about 4 × 1026 watts. This is unimaginably bright: brighter than a trillion cities together each with a trillion 100-watt light bulbs. Most known methods of generating energy fall far short of the capacity of the Sun. The total amount of energy produced over the entire life of the Sun is staggering, since the Sun has been shining for billions of years. Scientists were unable to explain the seemingly unlimited energy of stars like the Sun prior to the twentieth century.

  • 16.1: 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.
  • 16.2: 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 (with the amount of energy given by the formula E = mc2).
  • 16.3: 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.
  • 16.4: 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.
  • 16.E: The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse (Exercises)

Thumbnail: It takes an incredible amount of energy for the Sun to shine, as it has and will continue to do for billions of years. (credit: modification of work by Ed Dunens)