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. 

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

How to Catch the Transits of Mercury and the 'Demon Star' This Month

Allexxandar/iStock via Getty Images
Allexxandar/iStock via Getty Images

This month's sky-gazing event calendar is all about transits. In astronomy, a transit occurs when one celestial body appears to pass directly in front of another in the night sky, causing the light from one body to diminish in some cases. As Geek reports, there are two main transits to look out for in November: that of Mercury moving across the sun and the dimming and brightening of the "demon star" Algol.

What is a Mercury transit?

Mercury is currently in retrograde (though you shouldn't blame that for any chaos in your personal life). As the innermost planet travels "backwards" across the sky this month, it will make a rare detour past the face of the sun on November 11. Mercury's transit across the sun is something that only happens roughly 13 times every 100 years. Such an event won't be seen again in the U.S. until 2049.

This time around, it will take Mercury about five and a half hours—starting just after sunrise on the East Coast—to make the full journey from one end of the bright yellow disc to the other.

What is a "demon star" transit?

The transit of Algol, also known as the demon star, is a much more common event, but it's no less spectacular. Algol is really two stars in the constellation Perseus that are constantly orbiting each other. Every 2.86736 days, the smaller star of the pair passes in front of the larger star, making it appear slightly dimmer for 10 hours at a time. In the first half of the month, most of these transits occur after sunset on the East Coast, which is the best time to observe the transition. The next is set for November 9 at 3:17 a.m. EST, with the one after that taking place on November 12, six minutes after midnight.

Algol gets its monstrous nickname from a classic villain of Greek mythology. The star is supposed to resemble the winking, snake-haired head of the gorgon Medusa, who was slain by Perseus. Algol is a name derived from an Arabic word meaning "the demon's head."

How to see Mercury's and Algol's transits

To see both of these events, you'll need some special equipment. Looking directly at the sun is never a good idea, and NASA recommends using a telescope with a certified sun filter to watch Mercury's transit safely on November 11. A solar projection box or sun funnel would also allow you to observe the planet's passage without damaging your eyes.

There's no harm in looking straight at the twin stars that make up Algol, but you'll have trouble seeing them "blink" with your naked eye. For that event, a regular telescope or binoculars would do.

[h/t Geek]

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