The Sun consists largely of hydrogen (71% by mass) and helium (27%), with much smaller amounts of heavier elements. It puts out 400 trillion trillion watts of energy, produced by the fusion of hydrogen to helium by the carbon-nitrogen cycle in its core. The Sun is 109 times wider than the Earth. It spins on its axis with a period that varies from 25 days at the equator to 33.5 days near the poles.
The visible surface, or photosphere, is surrounded by the chromosphere and, beyond this, the corona.
Important features of the chromosphere include:
Sun-like stars and solar stabilitySince the Sun is unique in having a known (to humans!) habitable planet, it is natural that scientists first turn to stars similar to the Sun (see FGK stars and target stars) in their search for extraterrestrial life. Superficially, there are many such stars, including a handful that are less than 20 light-years away (see Sunlike stars). During this decade and beyond, attention will be focused on trying to detect Earthlike planets orbiting within the habitable zones of such solar look-alikes. However, it may be that in at least one respect the Sun is abnormal. A consensus is emerging that our star is exceptionally stable. Although like all stars it sends out flares from time to time, these tend to be on a very modest scale by stellar norms. What is still unknown is why the Sun is so well-behaved, and whether we just happen to be enjoying a tranquil phase in its career.
An almost-perfect sphereIn 2012, a team of scientists led by Jeffrey Kuhn, of the University of Hawaii, announced the first most precise measurement ever made of the Sun's oblateness – the extent to which it bulges out at the equator.1 Surprisingly, it turns out, the Sun is an almost perfect sphere. Despite being 1.4 million kilometers across, its equatorial diameter is a mere 10 kilometers more than its diameter from pole to pole. If the Sun were scaled down to the size of a beachball, the difference between its equatorial and polar diameters would be less than the width of a human hair. Given that the Sun spins on it axis, once every 28 days, and is made of (ionized) gas, this result implies that effects, such as magnetism or turbulence, play a greater effect in determining the overall shape of the Sun than had been expected.
Related category SOLAR TOPICS
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