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. 

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

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