Everything You Need to Know About the Sun

Formation & evolution

The sun was born about 4.6 billion years ago. Many scientists think the sun and the rest of the solar system formed from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula. As the nebula collapsed because of its gravity, it spun faster and flattened into a disk. Most of the material was pulled toward the center to form the sun.

The sun has enough nuclear fuel to stay much as it is now for another 5 billion years. After that, it will swell to become a red giant. Eventually, it will shed its outer layers, and the remaining core will collapse to become a white dwarf. Slowly, this will fade, to enter its final phase as a dim, cool theoretical object sometimes known as a black dwarf.

Internal structure and atmosphere

The sun and its atmosphere are divided into several zones and layers. The solar interior, from the inside out, is made up of the core, radiative zone and the convective zone. The solar atmosphere above that consists of the photosphere, chromosphere, a transition region and the corona. Beyond that is the solar wind, an outflow of gas from the corona.

The core extends from the sun's center to about a quarter of the way to its surface. Although it only makes up roughly 2 percent of the sun's volume, it is almost 15 times the density of lead and holds nearly half of the sun's mass. Next is the radiative zone, which extends from the core to 70 percent of the way to the sun's surface, making up 32 percent of the sun's volume and 48 percent of its mass. Light from the core gets scattered in this zone, so that a single photon often may take a million years to pass through.

The convection zone reaches up to the sun's surface, and makes up 66 percent of the sun's volume but only a little more than 2 percent of its mass. Roiling "convection cells" of gas dominate this zone. Two main kinds of solar convection cells exist — granulation cells about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) wide and supergranulation cells about 20,000 miles (30,000 km) in diameter.

The photosphere is the lowest layer of the sun's atmosphere, and emits the light we see. It is about 300 miles (500 km) thick, although most of the light comes from its lowest third. Temperatures in the photosphere range from 11,000 F (6,125 C) at bottom to 7,460 F (4,125 C) at top. Next up is the chromosphere, which is hotter, up to 35,500 F (19,725 C), and is apparently made up entirely of spiky structures known as spicules typically some 600 miles (1,000 km) across and up to 6,000 miles (10,000 km) high.

After that is the transition region a few hundred to a few thousand miles thick, which is heated by the corona above it and sheds most of its light as ultraviolet rays. At the top is the super-hot corona, which is made of structures such as loops and streams of ionized gas. The corona generally ranges from 900,000 F (500,000 C) to 10.8 million F (6 million C) and can even reach tens of millions of degrees when a solar flare occurs. Matter from the corona is blown off as the solar wind.