The SUN : Part 2



The Solar Surface

The actual visible surface of the sun is not solid but gaseous and is in continuous motion. This seething, boiling caldron is some 200 kilometres thick, and is commonly referred as the photosphere. Such turbulent features give the Sun its mottled appearance or the so-called granulation. All granules are some 200 to 300 kilometres across and last for several minutes before being replaced by newer ones. Often, dark spots appear on the solar disk from time to time on the solar disk as sunspots. Sunspots numbers vary significantly depending on stage in the cycle of the Suns activity. They are cooler regions on the Sun, and slowly increase in size over several days to weeks, reach a maximum, then fade away. Some have been observed to last for two or three rotations before disappearing altogether. Sunspots mainly appear either as pairs or groups and are termed active areas. Single sunspots are on the other hand fairly rare.

Other features such as faculae appear as tiny strands of white light, 1 to and 2 arcsec in length. On the solar surface, they can be thought of as hotter areas, opposite to the sunspots, and are about 800K to 1 000K than the surrounding photosphere. They are normally always associated with sunspots, and it is far more usually to see the faculae near to the limb of the Sun.

The Solar Atmosphere

Above the photosphere is the atmosphere of the Sun the chromosphere, and normally cannot be seen except just before and after totality during total solar eclipses. This hot 4 000K region appears against the lunar limb as bright pink colour, with the observed thickness is between ten and twenty thousand kilometres. Its composition being mainly hydrogen. Beyond the chromosphere is the corona, whose true extent is uncertain, but can be seen out anywhere between 3R⊙ to 10R⊙ in solar radii. The inner corona extends from 0.5R⊙ to about 1.0⊙ solar radii, while the outer corona extends from one to three solar radii. Made primarily of hydrogen and helium, the corona exist as a tenuous gas whose temperatures exceeds several million degrees. It emits strongly in both X-ray and ultra-violet light, but the cause of the temperature rise from the chromosphere to the corona is not fully understood. As most of the particles in the corona are highly ionized, the behaviour of the gas is affected by the prominences, flares and the solar magnetic field.

During any total solar eclipse, the corona can be seen by the naked-eye throughout all of totality. It can also be observed using special designed instruments called the coronascope, where the solar disk is completely obscured and a special filter is applied. To the naked-eye the corona appears as pearly white and is about as bright as the Full Moon. This is enhanced by radiating rays roughly perpendicular to the bright solar atmospheric surface. This is seen often over the general pearly white background. These rays are distributed in various places around the limb, but tend to avoid the Suns magnetic poles. Often during solar minimum the outline of the corona look very much like the outline of the magnetic field - like when seen metal fillings are placed on a piece of paper and influenced by a bar magnet. The telescopic view of the corona reveals tiny little broken strands of light seemingly like filamentary structures. Visually the corona may extend between one to three solar radii, but this does vary significantly from eclipse to eclipse. The complexity of the corona depends very much on the time of the event in the current 11-year solar cycle.

The Solar Interior

Knowledge of the Suns interior is fairly poor. Recent observations of solar seismic activity has allowed us to have a better understanding of its structure. Known as helioseismology, the method is much akin to using seismology to find out about the nature of the interior of the Earth. It is believed that below the photosphere lies the convection zone, the region that transports the hot pressurised gases from the Suns interior to the solar surface. We know of this kind of mixing must occur because the elements manufactured in the core can be seen spectroscopically on the surface. Further down, perhaps third to half a solar radius, is the radiative zone. Here the generated energy is passed into the upper atmosphere is very similar to bar radiators used to heating the surrounding air at home. At the very centre is the solar core. The core, the powerhouse of the Sun, is estimated to be about the size of Jupiter and is composed of very hot plasma, whose temperature is present estimated between three and five million degrees. Energy is created here, and under tremendously high pressures, where atoms are literally squeezed together to make the heavier elements.

Light once it is produced in the solar core may take about one million years to eventually radiate from the surface before it is seen on Earth. This is because the photons of light bounce continuously of surrounding atoms like some old pinball machine, whose sheer numbers make it almost impossible for the light to escape the core. It is quite astounding to think that the warm sunlight that we feel on our skin has taken about one million years since its creation for us to experience it. Yet once the light has been freed, it continues to travel through the universe, and unless it is absorbed or sactually hits some physical object, will show the Suns light as some distant star well after the ray of sunlight is finally extinguished billions of years from now. It is only the starlight eminating from distant suns that makes the whole universe visible to all of us. Aged light indeed!

Very strong electrical flows or currents also exist within the solar interior and are thought to be the mechanism that produces the observed strong magnetic fields. These fields may split into various localised areas that can create either enormous flares or prominences. They are commonly associated with sunspots and the corona holes, and also interact with the corona itself.

Solar Activity and Sunspots

Our Sun is not a passive static body. During the times of high solar activity, streams of atomic particles and most of the electromagnetic radiation are produced, which are closely associated with increased prominence activity. Prominences are extremely violent events and appear like tongue of red gas leaping away from the photosphere and are commonly associated with the plage areas.

During total solar eclipses prominences appear like reddish-pink loops or spikes around the solar disk. A special solar filter, called Hydrogen-alpha filter, can be used to look at these prominences and flares at any time during the day. Many prominences may last several hours with the more violent ones extending millions of kilometres into interplanetary space. These can strongly interact with the Earths upper atmosphere, damaging circuitry in spacecraft and cause serious radiation sickness problems for astronauts.

Flares appear to emanate from the active regions of the photosphere. These suddenly brighten up and last from a few seconds to several minutes. Some of these events are violent and can appear as very intense in Radio, X-Rays and ultra-violet emissions. Prodigious charged particles are also emitted from these events often diminishing the strength of the protective ionosphere, and in some instances the most powerful of blasts may cause fade-outs, power and communication blackouts. These then absorb the radio waves that are normally reflected by the ionosphere. These streams of particles comprise several types of charged particles includings, proton, neutrons and helium nuclei. Velocities of these streams of charged particles, called the solar wind, is thought to be about six hundred kilometres per second, or just 0.2% of the speed of light. These streams take about a day or so to travel the gulf between the Sun and Earth.

White Flares rarely appear on the Sun. They are really the brightest of the red-flares and can produce thousands of times more energy than normal flares. White flares can be visually seen during optical observations of the Sun and may last several minutes.

In all, observations of flares can be for the observer of an interesting pastime as the changes that do occur do so in minutes.

Observations of the Sun

Sunspots can easily be seen even with small telescopes (Important : See Warning Below), and more often than not, really do not require large apertures at all. Observation can be safely made by projection the solar image onto a white shaded sheet, without leaving the danger of exposing the eye to the blinding (literally) light of the Sun. Here, sunspots can be view will relative ease, and either drawn or ploted over time. Interesting for the amateur observer, is that sunspots can regularly observed from day to day to reveal the changes as they undergo growth and decay. Observations of sunspots, can be used to estimate the solar activity — useful understanding the long-term effects seen on the Sun. Such investigations can be made into other scientific subjects, like the weather or in radio broadcasting.

!!! W A R N I N G !!!

Using any telescope, the Sun should ONLY be observed by projecting the image on to a white screen or card. (Even this should be for short periods)
Direct viewing of the Sun, by either eye or any other optical equipment, is VERY DANGEROUS without proper eye protection. Otherwise, TOTAL BLINDNESS WILL RESULT, and even glancing will blind you in less than a ten-thousandth of a second.
If your telescope has something called a SUN FILTER – NEVER USE IT !! If this filter were to crack while you are observing the Sun, INSTANT blindness is the only possible outcome.

!!! W A R N I N G !!!


Important Disclaimer

The user applying this data for any purpose forgoes any liability against the author. None of the information should be used for regarding either legal or medical purposes. Although the data is accurate as possible some errors might be present. The onus of its use is placed solely with the user. Those not heading the given important warnings written in red on this page do so at their own risk.


Last Update : 1st December 2012

Southern Astronomical Delights © (2012)

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