|All the stars, including our Sun, are gigantic balls of superheated gas, kept hot by atomic
reactions in their centers. In our Sun, this atomic reaction is hydrogen fusion: four hydrogen
atoms are combined to form one helium atom. The temperature at the core of our Sun is
thought to be 36,000,000°F, or about 20,000,000°C, and the surface temperature averages
11,000°F, or about 6,000°C. The diameter of the Sun is 865,400 mi, and its surface area is
approximately 12,000 times that of Earth. Compared with other stars, our Sun is just a bit
below average in size and temperature, and is a yellow dwarf star. It is 4.5 billion years old,
and its fuel supply (hydrogen) is estimated to be sufficient for another 5 billion years.
Our Sun is not motionless in space; in fact, it has two kinds of motion. One is a seemingly
straight-line motion in the direction of the constellation Hercules at the rate of about 12
miles per second. But since the Sun is a part of the Milky Way system and since the whole
system rotates slowly around its own center, the Sun also moves at the rate of 175 miles
per second as part of the rotating Milky Way system.
In addition to this motion, the Sun rotates on its axis. Observations of the motion of
sunspots (darkish areas that look like enormous whirling storms) and solar flares, which are
usually associated with sunspots, have shown that the rotational period of the Sun is just
short of 25 days. But this figure is valid for the Sun's equator only; the sections near the
Sun's poles seem to have a rotational period of 34 days. Since the Sun generates its own
heat and light, there is no temperature difference between poles and equator.
In 1998, scientists saw for the first time that solar flares produce seismic waves in the
Sun's interior that resemble those created by earthquakes. They observed a flare-
generated solar quake equivalent to a 11.3 magnitude earthquake. It contained about
40,000 times the energy released in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
What we call the Sun's “surface” is scientifically known as the photosphere. Since the whole
Sun is a ball of expanding hot gas, there is really no such thing as a surface; it is a question
of visual impression. The layer outside the photosphere is known as the chromosphere,
which extends several thousand miles beyond the photosphere. It is in steady motion, and
often enormous prominences can be seen to burst from it, extending as much as 100,000
mi into space. Outside the chromosphere is the corona. The corona consists of very
tenuous gases (essentially hydrogen) and makes a magnificent sight when the Sun is
In addition to heat and light, the Sun also generates solar wind, a stream of ionized
particles that radiates outward through the solar system at high speeds. One of the effects
of solar wind is that it forces the tails of comets to point away from the Sun. The solar wind
also interacts with Earth's magnetic field, causing the auroras and other phenomena. Solar
flares—eruptions of hydrogen gas on the surface of the Sun—can also cause disturbances
in Earth's magnetic field.
As the Sun ages, it gradually expands and heats. It is estimated that the Sun's brilliancy will
increase by 10% over the next 1.1 billion years or more, and, in about 6.5 billion years, our
aging star will have doubled its present luminosity. The extreme heat generated will be
catastrophic for Earth: the oceans will boil away and life as we know it will end. Eight billion
years from now, the Sun's radius will extend beyond the present orbit of Venus, causing the
total destruction of Earth.