Cosmic Collisions Educator's Guide

our sun: living with a variable star

You already know that the Sun makes life possible. Its heat and light drive dynamic processes in the Earth system, from climate and ocean currents to photosynthesis. But were you aware that the Sun is a variable star? Or that solar winds stream off its surface and blast through space at more than a million miles per hour? Here's more about the star that's the source of it all.

Earth is protected by an invisible magnetic field, visualized here in blue - Click to enlarge
Earth is protected by an invisible magnetic field, visualized here in blue.
(click to enlarge) ©AMNH
Understanding the dynamic Sun is important to life on Earth — and beyond.

The Sun and everything in its environment — the heliosphere — form an immense, dynamic, and interconnected system. This system is driven by the Sun's radiation, the solar wind, and solar storms. Although the Sun appears constant, it is a variable star that emits constantly-changing energy.

Likewise, space may appear empty, but its vast reaches are filled with streaming matter that we call solar winds. Characterized by powerful electrical currents and magnetic fields that interact with the Earth, this variable environment contains the cosmic equivalent of wind, clouds, storms, and hurricanes. In fact, it's called space weather.

Solar wind blasts from the Sun's surface - Click to enlarge
Solar wind blasts from the Sun's surface.
(click to enlarge) ©NASA, ESA, SOHO
Space weather affects Earth as well as the outer solar system. When these streams of particles collide with Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere, they can create beautiful auroras — and they can sometimes really shake things up. In late fall, 2003, a series of
Coronal Mass Ejections — huge bubbles of gas ejected from the Sun — blasted a wave of particles through the solar system. When they reached Earth, these "Halloween Storms" disrupted GPS and radio signals, caused blackouts in Sweden, and disabled satellites.

The Earth has natural defenses; its magnetic field and atmosphere shield us from much of the hazardous energy the Sun sends in our direction. But we need to understand and monitor the electromagnetic processes that flow out into our solar system in order to protect Earth systems. And, as space explorers, we need to predict and mitigate the effects of solar activity so that satellites, robots, and eventually humans can venture safely beyond the shield of Earth's magnetic field.

We study the Sun from Earth and in space.

Studying the Sun is an active, ongoing research endeavor that requires special techniques and telescopes. Some telescopes, like the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, do nothing but study the Sun. Sub-orbital rockets and high-altitude balloons are an important and low-cost way to observe the Sun, as well as to test instruments for use on future space-based telescopes.

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory - Click to enlarge
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.
(click to enlarge) ©NASA, SOHO
An uninterrupted view of the Sun requires going to space, and NASA's Sun-Solar System Great Observatory, a fleet of Sun, space, and Earth observing spacecraft, now patrols this space. The Great Observatory includes the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE). These two telescopes provide
many of the dramatic close-up images of the Sun that are available today, including some shown in Cosmic Collisions.

As the nearest star, the Sun is our neighborhood astrophysical laboratory.

The processes that occur in our Sun also act at the center of every stellar system — and the Sun is just one of a vast number of variable stars in the universe. Since our Solar System is the one part of the universe we can investigate close up, what we learn here we can apply to the rest of the cosmos.

It's not just sunshine.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum - Click to enlarge
The Electromagnetic Spectrum.
(click to enlarge) Artwork concept from NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute
What we think of as "sunshine" is the visible light that reaches the Earth and lights our day. But the Sun gives off energy at all wavelengths of light (gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, and radio) and particles called neutrinos. The source of the Sun's energy, like that of all stars, is nuclear fusion reactions. In the Sun's dense core, a complex series of interactions causes four protons (hydrogen nuclei) to come together to form helium, which has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus. Neutrons are slightly less massive than protons. In accordance with Einstein's law (E=mc2), this mass is converted to energy, which eventually reaches Earth as radiation. The enormous energies involved in nuclear reactions are what make them so powerful — far more so than chemical ones.

Online resources from NASA:
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