Glossary

Glossary items by topic: The Sun

Aurora

A phenomenon produced when the solar wind (made up of energized electrons and protons) disturbs the atoms and molecules in a planet’s upper atmosphere. Some of the energy produced by these disturbances is converted into colorful visible light, which shimmers and dances. Auroras have been seen on several planets in our solar system. On Earth, auroras are also known as the “Northern Lights” (aurora borealis) or “Southern Lights” (aurora australis), depending on in which polar region they appear.

Chromosphere

The middle layer of the solar atmosphere between the photosphere and the corona. The chromosphere is roughly 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) thick and is composed primarily of hydrogen. It varies in temperature from below 10,000 Kelvin (18,000° F) to over 100,000 Kelvin (180,000° F).

Convection Zone

The region below a star's surface where energy flows outward by the rising of hot gas known as convection.

Corona

The outermost layer of the atmosphere of a star, including the Sun. The corona is visible during a solar eclipse or when special adapters or filters are attached to a telescope to block the light from the star’s central region. The gaseous corona extends millions of kilometers from the star’s surface and has a temperature in the millions of degrees.

Coronal Hole

Regions in the corona from which the high-speed solar wind is known to originate. Coronal holes, usually found near the Sun's poles, are large regions in the corona that are less dense and cooler than the surrounding region.

Flare

A sudden and violent outburst of solar energy that is often observed in the vicinity of a sunspot or solar prominence; also known as a solar flare.

Photosphere

The extremely thin, visible surface layer of the Sun or a star. The average temperature of the Sun’s photosphere is about 5800 Kelvin (about 10,000° F). Although the Sun is completely made up of gas, its gas is so dense that we cannot see through it. When we look at the Sun, we are seeing the photosphere.

Prominence

An eruption of gas from the chromosphere of a star. Solar prominences are visible as part of the corona during a total solar eclipse. These eruptions occur above the Sun’s surface (photosphere), where gases are suspended in a loop, apparently by magnetic forces that arch upward into the solar corona and then return to the surface.

Solar Constant

The average amount of solar radiation reaching a planet; usually expressed in watts (energy per unit time) per square meter. For Earth, the solar constant equals 1,372 W/m2. Each planet has a unique solar constant depending on its distance from the Sun.

Solar Cycle

The periodic changing of the Sun’s magnetic field, which determines the number of sunspots and the amount of particles emitted in the solar wind. The period of the cycle is about 11 years.

Solar Eclipse

A phenomenon in which the Moon’s disk passes in front of the Sun, blocking sunlight. A total eclipse occurs when the Moon completely obscures the Sun’s disk, leaving only the solar corona visible. A solar eclipse can only occur during a new phase of the Moon.

Solar Maximum

The midpoint in the solar cycle where the amount of sunspot activity and the output of cosmic particles and solar radiation is highest.

Solar Minimum

The beginning and the end of a sunspot cycle when only a few sunspots are usually observed, and the output of particles and radiation is normal.

Solar Wind

Streams of charged particles flowing from the Sun at millions of kilometers an hour. The composition of this high-speed solar wind may vary, but it always streams away from the Sun. The solar wind is responsible for the Northern and Southern Lights on Earth and causes the tails of comets to point away from the Sun.

Sun

The star at the center of our solar system. An average star in terms of size and mass, the Sun is a yellow dwarf of spectral type G2. It is about 5 billion years old, contains 2 * 1030 kilograms of material, and has a diameter more than 100 times that of Earth.

Sunspot

A region on the Sun’s photosphere that is cooler and darker than the surrounding material. Sunspots often appear in pairs or groups with specific magnetic polarities that indicate electromagnetic origins.

Sunspot Cycle

The change in strength of the Sun’s magnetic field, which determines the number of sunspots and the amount of particles emitted in the solar wind. The period of the cycle is about 11 years.

 
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