Our star, the Sun, makes up 99% of all the mass in the Solar System. Its core is so dense and hot that normally repellent nuclei fuse together in nuclear reactions that produce vast amounts of energy.
The Sun is mostly hydrogen (its main fuel) and helium, and radiates charged particles called solar wind across the Solar System. Phenomena such as solar flares and sunspots are evidence of the Sun's strong magnetic field, which changes on a roughly 11-year cycle.
Read about eye safety during solar eclipses on the NASA website.
Photo: The Sun taken by the SOHO probe (ESA/NASA)
The Sun's core powers the Solar System.
Nineteenth century astronomers split the Sun's light to see more of its structures.
By splitting the light of the Sun into its component colours with a technique called spectroscopy, early astronomers saw more of the Sun's features. They also worked out what chemical elements form the Sun.
Astronauts see solar flares and coronal mass ejections in great detail.
Following in the steps of Sun observers such as Galileo and Angelo Secchi, US astronauts aboard the Skylab space station captured more than 160,000 images of the Sun. They saw events such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections in great detail. Skylab was launched in 1973.
The 17th century scientist sees blemishes on the Sun.
The Italian physicist and mathematician Galileo Galilei was the first person to observe the Sun through a telescope. He saw sunspots moving across the Sun's surface and realised that it was rotating.
A stream of particles from the Sun stretches beyond the outer planets.
Measurements made by the 1962 Mariner 2 spacecraft confirmed the presence of solar wind, a stream of particles from the Sun that stretches far beyond the outer planets. The Earth's magnetic field fights a constant battle against the solar wind's atmosphere eroding effects.
The Solar System's formation may have been triggered by an exploding star.
About 4.5 billion years ago, a supernova (exploding star) at the edge of our galaxy is thought to have sprayed superhot dust and gas into space and caused a neighbouring gas cloud to collapse. This mixture of gas and dust gravitated together until the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun was triggered.
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields. It has a diameter of about 1,392,684 km, about 109 times that of Earth, and its mass (about 2×1030 kilograms, 330,000 times that of Earth) accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Chemically, about three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen, while the rest is mostly helium. The remainder (1.69%, which nonetheless equals 5,628 times the mass of Earth) consists of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon and iron, among others.
The Sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud. Most of the matter gathered in the center, while the rest flattened into an orbiting disk that would become the Solar System. The central mass became increasingly hot and dense, eventually initiating thermonuclear fusion in its core. It is thought that almost all other stars form by this process. The Sun's stellar classification, based on spectral class, is a G-type main-sequence star (G2V), and is informally designated as a yellow dwarf, because its visible radiation is most intense in the yellow-green portion of the spectrum and although its color is white, from the surface of the Earth it may appear yellow because of atmospheric scattering of blue light. In the spectral class label, G2 indicates its surface temperature of approximately 5778 K (5505 °C), and V indicates that the Sun, like most stars, is a main-sequence star, and thus generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. In its core, the Sun fuses 620 million metric tons of hydrogen each second.
Once regarded by astronomers as a small and relatively insignificant star, the Sun is now thought to be brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, most of which are red dwarfs. The absolute magnitude of the Sun is +4.83; however, as the star closest to Earth, the Sun is the brightest object in the sky with an apparent magnitude of −26.74. The Sun's hot corona continuously expands in space creating the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that extends to the heliopause at roughly 100 astronomical units. The bubble in the interstellar medium formed by the solar wind, the heliosphere, is the largest continuous structure in the Solar System.
The Sun is currently traveling through the Local Interstellar Cloud (near to the G-cloud) in the Local Bubble zone, within the inner rim of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Of the 50 nearest stellar systems within 17 light-years from Earth (the closest being a red dwarf named Proxima Centauri at approximately 4.2 light-years away), the Sun ranks fourth in mass. The Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way at a distance of approximately 24,000–26,000 light-years from the galactic center, completing one clockwise orbit, as viewed from the galactic north pole, in about 225–250 million years. Since the Milky Way is moving with respect to the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in the direction of the constellation Hydra with a speed of 550 km/s, the Sun's resultant velocity with respect to the CMB is about 370 km/s in the direction of Crater or Leo.
The mean distance of the Sun from the Earth is approximately 149.6 million kilometers (1 AU), though the distance varies as the Earth moves from perihelion in January to aphelion in July. At this average distance, light travels from the Sun to Earth in about 8 minutes and 19 seconds. The energy of this sunlight supports almost all life on Earth by photosynthesis, and drives Earth's climate and weather. The enormous effect of the Sun on the Earth has been recognized since prehistoric times, and the Sun has been regarded by some cultures as a deity. An accurate scientific understanding of the Sun developed slowly, and as recently as the 19th century prominent scientists had little knowledge of the Sun's physical composition and source of energy. This understanding is still developing; there are a number of present day anomalies in the Sun's behavior that remain unexplained.
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