Star at the centre of the Solar System
Top 10 Sun related articles
- 1 Name and etymology
- 2 General characteristics
- 3 Sunlight
- 4 Composition
- 5 Structure and fusion
- 6 Magnetic activity
- 7 Life phases
- 8 Motion and location
- 9 Theoretical problems
- 10 Observational history
- 11 Observation and effects
- 12 Planetary system
- 13 Religious aspects
- 14 See also
- 15 Notes
- 16 References
- 17 Further reading
- 18 External links
|Names||Sun, Sol //, Sól, Helios //|
|1 AU ≈ 1.496×108 km|
8 min 19 s at light speed
|Visual brightness (V)||−26.74|
|Metallicity||Z = 0.0122|
|Angular size||31.6–32.7 minutes of arc|
≈ 0.5 degrees
from Milky Way core
|≈ 2.7×1017 km|
≈ 29,000 light-years
|Galactic period||(2.25–2.50)×108 yr|
|Velocity||≈ 220 km/s (orbit around the center of the Milky Way) |
≈ 20 km/s (relative to average velocity of other stars in stellar neighborhood)
≈ 370 km/s (relative to the cosmic microwave background)
|Equatorial radius||695,700 km,|
109 × Earth
|Equatorial circumference||4.379×106 km|
109 × Earth
|Surface area||6.09×1012 km2|
12,000 × Earth
1,300,000 × Earth
|Average density||1.408 g/cm3|
0.255 × Earth
|Center density (modeled)||162.2 g/cm3|
12.4 × Earth
|Equatorial surface gravity||274 m/s2|
28 × Earth
|Moment of inertia factor||0.070 (estimate)|
(from the surface)
55 × Earth
|Temperature||Center (modeled): 1.57×107 K|
Photosphere (effective): 5,772 K
Corona: ≈ 5×106 K
|Luminosity (Lsol)||3.828×1026 W|
≈ 3.75×1028 lm
≈ 98 lm/W efficacy
|Mean radiance (Isol)||2.009×107 W·m−2·sr−1|
|Age||≈ 4.6 billion years|
(to the ecliptic)
(to the galactic plane)
of North pole
19 h 4 min 30 s
of North pole
63° 52' North
|Sidereal rotation period |
|(at 16° latitude)||25.38 d|
25 d 9 h 7 min 12 s
|(at poles)||34.4 d|
|Photospheric composition (by mass)|
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, heated to incandescence by nuclear fusion reactions in its core, radiating the energy mainly as visible light and infrared radiation. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometres (864,000 miles), or 109 times that of Earth. Its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth, and accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%); the rest is mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.
The Sun is a G-type main-sequence star (G2V) based on its spectral class. As such, it is informally and not completely accurately referred to as a yellow dwarf (its light is closer to white than yellow). It formed approximately 4.6 billion[a] years ago from the gravitational collapse of matter within a region of a large molecular cloud. Most of this matter gathered in the center, whereas the rest flattened into an orbiting disk that became the Solar System. The central mass became so hot and dense that it eventually initiated nuclear fusion in its core. It is thought that almost all stars form by this process.
The Sun's core fuses about 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every second, converting 4 million tons of matter into energy every second as a result. This energy, which can take between 10,000 and 170,000 years to escape the core, is the source of the Sun's light and heat. When hydrogen fusion in its core has diminished to the point at which the Sun is no longer in hydrostatic equilibrium, its core will undergo a marked increase in density and temperature while its outer layers expand, eventually transforming the Sun into a red giant. It is calculated that the Sun will become sufficiently large to engulf the current orbits of Mercury and Venus, and render Earth uninhabitable – but not for about five billion years. After this, it will shed its outer layers and become a dense type of cooling star known as a white dwarf, and no longer produce energy by fusion, but still glow and give off heat from its previous fusion.
The enormous effect of the Sun on Earth has been recognized since prehistoric times. The Sun was thought of by some cultures as a deity. The synodic rotation of Earth and its orbit around the Sun are the basis of solar calendars, one of which is the Gregorian calendar, the predominant calendar in use today.
Sun Intro articles: 30
Name and etymology
The English word sun developed from Old English sunne. Cognates appear in other Germanic languages, including West Frisian sinne, Dutch zon, Low German Sünn, Standard German Sonne, Bavarian Sunna, Old Norse sunna and Gothic sunnō. All these words stem from Proto-Germanic *sunnōn. This is ultimately related to the word for "sun" in other branches of the Indo-European language family, though in most cases a nominative stem with an l is found, rather than the genitive stem in n, as for example in Latin sōl, Greek ἥλιος hēlios, Welsh haul and Russian солнце solntse (pronounced sontse), as well as (with *l > r) Sanskrit स्वर svár and Persian خور xvar. Indeed, the l-stem survived in Proto-Germanic as well, as *sōwelan, which gave rise to Gothic sauil (alongside sunnō) and Old Norse prosaic sól (alongside poetic sunna), and through it the words for "sun" in the modern Scandinavian languages: Swedish and Danish solen, Icelandic sólin, etc.
In English, the Greek and Latin words occur in poetry as personifications of the Sun, Helios // and Sol //, while in science fiction "Sol" may be used as a name for the Sun to distinguish it from other stars. The term "sol" with a lower-case 's' is used by planetary astronomers for the duration of a solar day on another planet such as Mars.
The principal adjectives for the Sun in English are sunny for sunlight and, in technical contexts, solar //, from Latin sol – the latter found in terms such as solar day, solar eclipse and Solar System (occasionally Sol system). From the Greek helios comes the rare adjective heliac //.
The English weekday name Sunday stems from Old English Sunnandæg "sun's day", a Germanic interpretation of the Latin phrase diēs sōlis, itself a translation of the Greek ἡμέρα ἡλίου hēmera hēliou "day of the sun".
Sun Name and etymology articles: 22
The Sun is a G-type main-sequence star that comprises about 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System. The Sun has an absolute magnitude of +4.83, estimated to be brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way, most of which are red dwarfs. The Sun is a Population I, or heavy-element-rich,[b] star. The formation of the Sun may have been triggered by shockwaves from one or more nearby supernovae. This is suggested by a high abundance of heavy elements in the Solar System, such as gold and uranium, relative to the abundances of these elements in so-called Population II, heavy-element-poor, stars. The heavy elements could most plausibly have been produced by endothermic nuclear reactions during a supernova, or by transmutation through neutron absorption within a massive second-generation star.
The Sun is by far the brightest object in the Earth's sky, with an apparent magnitude of −26.74. This is about 13 billion times brighter than the next brightest star, Sirius, which has an apparent magnitude of −1.46. One astronomical unit (about 150,000,000 km; 93,000,000 mi) is defined as the mean distance of the Sun's center to Earth's center, though the distance varies as Earth moves from perihelion in January to aphelion in July. At this average distance, light travels from the Sun's horizon to Earth's horizon in about 8 minutes and 19 seconds, while light from the closest points of the Sun and Earth takes about two seconds less. The energy of this sunlight supports almost all life[c] on Earth by photosynthesis, and drives Earth's climate and weather.
The Sun does not have a definite boundary, but its density decreases exponentially with increasing height above the photosphere. For the purpose of measurement, the Sun's radius is considered to be the distance from its center to the edge of the photosphere, the apparent visible surface of the Sun. By this measure, the Sun is a near-perfect sphere with an oblateness estimated at about 9 millionths, which means that its polar diameter differs from its equatorial diameter by only 10 kilometres (6.2 mi). The tidal effect of the planets is weak and does not significantly affect the shape of the Sun. The Sun rotates faster at its equator than at its poles. This differential rotation is caused by convective motion due to heat transport and the Coriolis force due to the Sun's rotation. In a frame of reference defined by the stars, the rotational period is approximately 25.6 days at the equator and 33.5 days at the poles. Viewed from Earth as it orbits the Sun, the apparent rotational period of the Sun at its equator is about 28 days. Viewed from a vantage point above its north pole, the Sun rotates counterclockwise around its axis of spin.[d]
Sun General characteristics articles: 28
The solar constant is the amount of power that the Sun deposits per unit area that is directly exposed to sunlight. The solar constant is equal to approximately 1,368 W/m2 (watts per square meter) at a distance of one astronomical unit (AU) from the Sun (that is, on or near Earth). Sunlight on the surface of Earth is attenuated by Earth's atmosphere, so that less power arrives at the surface (closer to 1,000 W/m2) in clear conditions when the Sun is near the zenith. Sunlight at the top of Earth's atmosphere is composed (by total energy) of about 50% infrared light, 40% visible light, and 10% ultraviolet light. The atmosphere in particular filters out over 70% of solar ultraviolet, especially at the shorter wavelengths. Solar ultraviolet radiation ionizes Earth's dayside upper atmosphere, creating the electrically conducting ionosphere.
The Sun emits light across the visible spectrum, so its color is white, with a CIE color-space index near (0.3, 0.3), when viewed from space or when the Sun is high in the sky. The Solar radiance per wavelength peaks in the green portion of the spectrum when viewed from space. When the Sun is low in the sky, atmospheric scattering renders the Sun yellow, red, orange, or magenta. Despite its typical whiteness, most[note 1] people mentally picture the Sun as yellow; the reasons for this are the subject of debate. The Sun is a G2V star, with G2 indicating its surface temperature of approximately 5,778 K (5,505 °C, 9,941 °F), and V that it, like most stars, is a main-sequence star. The average luminance of the Sun is about 1.88 giga candela per square metre, but as viewed through Earth's atmosphere, this is lowered to about 1.44 Gcd/m2.[e] However, the luminance is not constant across the disk of the Sun (limb darkening).
Sun Sunlight articles: 15
The Sun is composed primarily of the chemical elements hydrogen and helium. At this time in the Sun's life, they account for 74.9% and 23.8% of the mass of the Sun in the photosphere, respectively. All heavier elements, called metals in astronomy, account for less than 2% of the mass, with oxygen (roughly 1% of the Sun's mass), carbon (0.3%), neon (0.2%), and iron (0.2%) being the most abundant.
The Sun's original chemical composition was inherited from the interstellar medium out of which it formed. Originally it would have contained about 71.1% hydrogen, 27.4% helium, and 1.5% heavier elements. The hydrogen and most of the helium in the Sun would have been produced by Big Bang nucleosynthesis in the first 20 minutes of the universe, and the heavier elements were produced by previous generations of stars before the Sun was formed, and spread into the interstellar medium during the final stages of stellar life and by events such as supernovae.
Since the Sun formed, the main fusion process has involved fusing hydrogen into helium. Over the past 4.6 billion years, the amount of helium and its location within the Sun has gradually changed. Within the core, the proportion of helium has increased from about 24% to about 60% due to fusion, and some of the helium and heavy elements have settled from the photosphere towards the center of the Sun because of gravity. The proportions of metals (heavier elements) is unchanged. Heat is transferred outward from the Sun's core by radiation rather than by convection (see Radiative zone below), so the fusion products are not lifted outward by heat; they remain in the core and gradually an inner core of helium has begun to form that cannot be fused because presently the Sun's core is not hot or dense enough to fuse helium. In the current photosphere, the helium fraction is reduced, and the metallicity is only 84% of what it was in the protostellar phase (before nuclear fusion in the core started). In the future, helium will continue to accumulate in the core, and in about 5 billion years this gradual build-up will eventually cause the Sun to exit the main sequence and become a red giant.
The chemical composition of the photosphere is normally considered representative of the composition of the primordial Solar System. The solar heavy-element abundances described above are typically measured both using spectroscopy of the Sun's photosphere and by measuring abundances in meteorites that have never been heated to melting temperatures. These meteorites are thought to retain the composition of the protostellar Sun and are thus not affected by the settling of heavy elements. The two methods generally agree well.
Singly ionized iron-group elements
In the 1970s, much research focused on the abundances of iron-group elements in the Sun. Although significant research was done, until 1978 it was difficult to determine the abundances of some iron-group elements (e.g. cobalt and manganese) via spectrography because of their hyperfine structures.
The first largely complete set of oscillator strengths of singly ionized iron-group elements were made available in the 1960s, and these were subsequently improved. In 1978, the abundances of singly ionized elements of the iron group were derived.
Various authors have considered the existence of a gradient in the isotopic compositions of solar and planetary noble gases, e.g. correlations between isotopic compositions of neon and xenon in the Sun and on the planets.
Prior to 1983, it was thought that the whole Sun has the same composition as the solar atmosphere. In 1983, it was claimed that it was fractionation in the Sun itself that caused the isotopic-composition relationship between the planetary and solar-wind-implanted noble gases.
Sun Composition articles: 20
Structure and fusion
The structure of the Sun contains the following layers:
- Core – the innermost 20–25% of the Sun's radius, where temperature (energies) and pressure are sufficient for nuclear fusion to occur. Hydrogen fuses into helium (which cannot currently be fused at this point in the Sun's life). The fusion process releases energy, and the core gradually becomes enriched in helium.
- Radiative zone – Convection cannot occur until much nearer the surface of the Sun. Therefore, between about 20–25% of the radius, and 70% of the radius, there is a "radiative zone" in which energy transfer occurs by means of radiation (photons) rather than by convection.
- Tachocline – the boundary region between the radiative and convective zones.
- Convective zone – Between about 70% of the Sun's radius and a point close to the visible surface, the Sun is cool and diffuse enough for convection to occur, and this becomes the primary means of outward heat transfer, similar to weather cells which form in the earth's atmosphere.
- Photosphere – the deepest part of the Sun which we can directly observe with visible light. Because the Sun is a gaseous object, it does not have a clearly defined surface; its visible parts are usually divided into a 'photosphere' and 'atmosphere'.
- Atmosphere – a gaseous 'halo' surrounding the Sun, comprising the chromosphere, solar transition region, corona and heliosphere. These can be seen when the main part of the Sun is hidden, for example, during a solar eclipse.
The core of the Sun extends from the center to about 20–25% of the solar radius. It has a density of up to 150 g/cm3 (about 150 times the density of water) and a temperature of close to 15.7 million kelvins (K). By contrast, the Sun's surface temperature is approximately 5800 K. Recent analysis of SOHO mission data favors a faster rotation rate in the core than in the radiative zone above. Through most of the Sun's life, energy has been produced by nuclear fusion in the core region through a series of nuclear reactions called the p–p (proton–proton) chain; this process converts hydrogen into helium. Only 0.8% of the energy generated in the Sun comes from another sequence of fusion reactions called the CNO cycle, though this proportion is expected to increase as the Sun becomes older.
The core is the only region in the Sun that produces an appreciable amount of thermal energy through fusion; 99% of the power is generated within 24% of the Sun's radius, and by 30% of the radius, fusion has stopped nearly entirely. The remainder of the Sun is heated by this energy as it is transferred outwards through many successive layers, finally to the solar photosphere where it escapes into space through radiation (photons) or advection (massive particles).
The proton–proton chain occurs around 9.2×1037 times each second in the core, converting about 3.7×1038 protons into alpha particles (helium nuclei) every second (out of a total of ~8.9×1056 free protons in the Sun), or about 6.2×1011 kg/s. Fusing four free protons (hydrogen nuclei) into a single alpha particle (helium nucleus) releases around 0.7% of the fused mass as energy, so the Sun releases energy at the mass–energy conversion rate of 4.26 million metric tons per second (which requires 600 metric megatons of hydrogen ), for 384.6 yottawatts (3.846×1026 W), or 9.192×1010 megatons of TNT per second. The large power output of the Sun is mainly due to the huge size and density of its core (compared to Earth and objects on Earth), with only a fairly small amount of power being generated per cubic metre. Theoretical models of the Sun's interior indicate a maximum power density, or energy production, of approximately 276.5 watts per cubic metre at the center of the core, which is about the same power density inside a compost pile.[f]
The fusion rate in the core is in a self-correcting equilibrium: a slightly higher rate of fusion would cause the core to heat up more and expand slightly against the weight of the outer layers, reducing the density and hence the fusion rate and correcting the perturbation; and a slightly lower rate would cause the core to cool and shrink slightly, increasing the density and increasing the fusion rate and again reverting it to its present rate.
From the core out to about 0.7 solar radii, thermal radiation is the primary means of energy transfer. The temperature drops from approximately 7 million to 2 million kelvins with increasing distance from the core. This temperature gradient is less than the value of the adiabatic lapse rate and hence cannot drive convection, which explains why the transfer of energy through this zone is by radiation instead of thermal convection. Ions of hydrogen and helium emit photons, which travel only a brief distance before being reabsorbed by other ions. The density drops a hundredfold (from 20 g/cm3 to 0.2 g/cm3) from 0.25 solar radii to the 0.7 radii, the top of the radiative zone.
The radiative zone and the convective zone are separated by a transition layer, the tachocline. This is a region where the sharp regime change between the uniform rotation of the radiative zone and the differential rotation of the convection zone results in a large shear between the two—a condition where successive horizontal layers slide past one another. Presently, it is hypothesized (see Solar dynamo) that a magnetic dynamo within this layer generates the Sun's magnetic field.
The Sun's convection zone extends from 0.7 solar radii (500,000 km) to near the surface. In this layer, the solar plasma is not dense enough or hot enough to transfer the heat energy of the interior outward via radiation. Instead, the density of the plasma is low enough to allow convective currents to develop and move the Sun's energy outward towards its surface. Material heated at the tachocline picks up heat and expands, thereby reducing its density and allowing it to rise. As a result, an orderly motion of the mass develops into thermal cells that carry the majority of the heat outward to the Sun's photosphere above. Once the material diffusively and radiatively cools just beneath the photospheric surface, its density increases, and it sinks to the base of the convection zone, where it again picks up heat from the top of the radiative zone and the convective cycle continues. At the photosphere, the temperature has dropped to 5,700 K and the density to only 0.2 g/m3 (about 1/6,000 the density of air at sea level).
The thermal columns of the convection zone form an imprint on the surface of the Sun giving it a granular appearance called the solar granulation at the smallest scale and supergranulation at larger scales. Turbulent convection in this outer part of the solar interior sustains "small-scale" dynamo action over the near-surface volume of the Sun. The Sun's thermal columns are Bénard cells and take the shape of roughly hexagonal prisms.
The visible surface of the Sun, the photosphere, is the layer below which the Sun becomes opaque to visible light. Photons produced in this layer escape the Sun through the transparent solar atmosphere above it and become solar radiation, sunlight. The change in opacity is due to the decreasing amount of H− ions, which absorb visible light easily. Conversely, the visible light we see is produced as electrons react with hydrogen atoms to produce H− ions. The photosphere is tens to hundreds of kilometers thick, and is slightly less opaque than air on Earth. Because the upper part of the photosphere is cooler than the lower part, an image of the Sun appears brighter in the center than on the edge or limb of the solar disk, in a phenomenon known as limb darkening. The spectrum of sunlight has approximately the spectrum of a black-body radiating at 5777 K, interspersed with atomic absorption lines from the tenuous layers above the photosphere. The photosphere has a particle density of ~1023 m−3 (about 0.37% of the particle number per volume of Earth's atmosphere at sea level). The photosphere is not fully ionized—the extent of ionization is about 3%, leaving almost all of the hydrogen in atomic form.
During early studies of the optical spectrum of the photosphere, some absorption lines were found that did not correspond to any chemical elements then known on Earth. In 1868, Norman Lockyer hypothesized that these absorption lines were caused by a new element that he dubbed helium, after the Greek Sun god Helios. Twenty-five years later, helium was isolated on Earth.
During a total solar eclipse, when the disk of the Sun is covered by that of the Moon, parts of the Sun's surrounding atmosphere can be seen. It is composed of four distinct parts: the chromosphere, the transition region, the corona and the heliosphere.
The coolest layer of the Sun is a temperature minimum region extending to about 500 km above the photosphere, and has a temperature of about 4,100 K. This part of the Sun is cool enough to allow the existence of simple molecules such as carbon monoxide and water, which can be detected via their absorption spectra.
The chromosphere, transition region, and corona are much hotter than the surface of the Sun. The reason is not well understood, but evidence suggests that Alfvén waves may have enough energy to heat the corona.
Above the temperature minimum layer is a layer about 2,000 km thick, dominated by a spectrum of emission and absorption lines. It is called the chromosphere from the Greek root chroma, meaning color, because the chromosphere is visible as a colored flash at the beginning and end of total solar eclipses. The temperature of the chromosphere increases gradually with altitude, ranging up to around 20,000 K near the top. In the upper part of the chromosphere helium becomes partially ionized.
Above the chromosphere, in a thin (about 200 km) transition region, the temperature rises rapidly from around 20000 K in the upper chromosphere to coronal temperatures closer to 1000000 K. The temperature increase is facilitated by the full ionization of helium in the transition region, which significantly reduces radiative cooling of the plasma. The transition region does not occur at a well-defined altitude. Rather, it forms a kind of nimbus around chromospheric features such as spicules and filaments, and is in constant, chaotic motion. The transition region is not easily visible from Earth's surface, but is readily observable from space by instruments sensitive to the extreme ultraviolet portion of the spectrum.
The corona is the next layer of the Sun. The low corona, near the surface of the Sun, has a particle density around 1015 m−3 to 1016 m−3.[g] The average temperature of the corona and solar wind is about 1,000,000–2,000,000 K; however, in the hottest regions it is 8,000,000–20,000,000 K. Although no complete theory yet exists to account for the temperature of the corona, at least some of its heat is known to be from magnetic reconnection. The corona is the extended atmosphere of the Sun, which has a volume much larger than the volume enclosed by the Sun's photosphere. A flow of plasma outward from the Sun into interplanetary space is the solar wind.
The heliosphere, the tenuous outermost atmosphere of the Sun, is filled with the solar wind plasma. This outermost layer of the Sun is defined to begin at the distance where the flow of the solar wind becomes superalfvénic—that is, where the flow becomes faster than the speed of Alfvén waves, at approximately 20 solar radii (0.1 AU). Turbulence and dynamic forces in the heliosphere cannot affect the shape of the solar corona within, because the information can only travel at the speed of Alfvén waves. The solar wind travels outward continuously through the heliosphere, forming the solar magnetic field into a spiral shape, until it impacts the heliopause more than 50 AU from the Sun. In December 2004, the Voyager 1 probe passed through a shock front that is thought to be part of the heliopause. In late 2012 Voyager 1 recorded a marked increase in cosmic ray collisions and a sharp drop in lower energy particles from the solar wind, which suggested that the probe had passed through the heliopause and entered the interstellar medium. The heliosphere has a heliotail which stretches out behind it due to the Sun's movement.
Photons and neutrinos
High-energy gamma ray photons initially released with fusion reactions in the core are almost immediately absorbed by the solar plasma of the radiative zone, usually after traveling only a few millimeters. Re-emission happens in a random direction and usually at slightly lower energy. With this sequence of emissions and absorptions, it takes a long time for radiation to reach the Sun's surface. Estimates of the photon travel time range between 10,000 and 170,000 years. In contrast, it takes only 2.3 seconds for the neutrinos, which account for about 2% of the total energy production of the Sun, to reach the surface. Because energy transport in the Sun is a process that involves photons in thermodynamic equilibrium with matter, the time scale of energy transport in the Sun is longer, on the order of 30,000,000 years. This is the time it would take the Sun to return to a stable state if the rate of energy generation in its core were suddenly changed.
Neutrinos are also released by the fusion reactions in the core, but, unlike photons, they rarely interact with matter, so almost all are able to escape the Sun immediately. For many years measurements of the number of neutrinos produced in the Sun were lower than theories predicted by a factor of 3. This discrepancy was resolved in 2001 through the discovery of the effects of neutrino oscillation: the Sun emits the number of neutrinos predicted by the theory, but neutrino detectors were missing 2⁄3 of them because the neutrinos had changed flavor by the time they were detected.
Sun Structure and fusion articles: 69
The Sun has a magnetic field that varies across the surface of the Sun. Its polar field is 1–2 gauss (0.0001–0.0002 T), whereas the field is typically 3,000 gauss (0.3 T) in features on the Sun called sunspots and 10–100 gauss (0.001–0.01 T) in solar prominences. The magnetic field varies in time and location. The quasi-periodic 11-year solar cycle is the most prominent variation in which the number and size of sunspots waxes and wanes.
Sunspots are visible as dark patches on the Sun's photosphere and correspond to concentrations of magnetic field where the convective transport of heat is inhibited from the solar interior to the surface. As a result, sunspots are slightly cooler than the surrounding photosphere, so they appear dark. At a typical solar minimum, few sunspots are visible, and occasionally none can be seen at all. Those that do appear are at high solar latitudes. As the solar cycle progresses towards its maximum, sunspots tend to form closer to the solar equator, a phenomenon known as Spörer's law. The largest sunspots can be tens of thousands of kilometers across.
An 11-year sunspot cycle is half of a 22-year Babcock–Leighton dynamo cycle, which corresponds to an oscillatory exchange of energy between toroidal and poloidal solar magnetic fields. At solar-cycle maximum, the external poloidal dipolar magnetic field is near its dynamo-cycle minimum strength, but an internal toroidal quadrupolar field, generated through differential rotation within the tachocline, is near its maximum strength. At this point in the dynamo cycle, buoyant upwelling within the convective zone forces emergence of the toroidal magnetic field through the photosphere, giving rise to pairs of sunspots, roughly aligned east-west and having footprints with opposite magnetic polarities. The magnetic polarity of sunspot pairs alternates every solar cycle, a phenomenon known as the Hale cycle.
During the solar cycle's declining phase, energy shifts from the internal toroidal magnetic field to the external poloidal field, and sunspots diminish in number and size. At solar-cycle minimum, the toroidal field is, correspondingly, at minimum strength, sunspots are relatively rare, and the poloidal field is at its maximum strength. With the rise of the next 11-year sunspot cycle, differential rotation shifts magnetic energy back from the poloidal to the toroidal field, but with a polarity that is opposite to the previous cycle. The process carries on continuously, and in an idealized, simplified scenario, each 11-year sunspot cycle corresponds to a change, then, in the overall polarity of the Sun's large-scale magnetic field.
The solar magnetic field extends well beyond the Sun itself. The electrically conducting solar wind plasma carries the Sun's magnetic field into space, forming what is called the interplanetary magnetic field. In an approximation known as ideal magnetohydrodynamics, plasma particles only move along the magnetic field lines. As a result, the outward-flowing solar wind stretches the interplanetary magnetic field outward, forcing it into a roughly radial structure. For a simple dipolar solar magnetic field, with opposite hemispherical polarities on either side of the solar magnetic equator, a thin current sheet is formed in the solar wind. At great distances, the rotation of the Sun twists the dipolar magnetic field and corresponding current sheet into an Archimedean spiral structure called the Parker spiral. The interplanetary magnetic field is much stronger than the dipole component of the solar magnetic field. The Sun's dipole magnetic field of 50–400 μT (at the photosphere) reduces with the inverse-cube of the distance, leading to a predicted magnetic field of 0.1 nT at the distance of Earth. However, according to spacecraft observations the interplanetary field at Earth's location is around 5 nT, about a hundred times greater. The difference is due to magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in the plasma surrounding the Sun.
Variation in activity
The Sun's magnetic field leads to many effects that are collectively called solar activity. Solar flares and coronal-mass ejections tend to occur at sunspot groups. Slowly changing high-speed streams of solar wind are emitted from coronal holes at the photospheric surface. Both coronal-mass ejections and high-speed streams of solar wind carry plasma and interplanetary magnetic field outward into the Solar System. The effects of solar activity on Earth include auroras at moderate to high latitudes and the disruption of radio communications and electric power. Solar activity is thought to have played a large role in the formation and evolution of the Solar System.
With solar-cycle modulation of sunspot number comes a corresponding modulation of space weather conditions, including those surrounding Earth where technological systems can be affected.
In December 2019, a new type of solar magnetic explosion was observed, known as forced magnetic reconnection. Previously, in a process called spontaneous magnetic reconnection, it was observed that the solar magnetic field lines diverge explosively and then converge again instantaneously. Forced Magnetic Reconnection was similar, but it was triggered by an explosion in the corona.
Long-term secular change in sunspot number is thought, by some scientists, to be correlated with long-term change in solar irradiance, which, in turn, might influence Earth's long-term climate. For example, in the 17th century, the solar cycle appeared to have stopped entirely for several decades; few sunspots were observed during a period known as the Maunder minimum. This coincided in time with the era of the Little Ice Age, when Europe experienced unusually cold temperatures. Earlier extended minima have been discovered through analysis of tree rings and appear to have coincided with lower-than-average global temperatures.
A recent theory claims that there are magnetic instabilities in the core of the Sun that cause fluctuations with periods of either 41,000 or 100,000 years. These could provide a better explanation of the ice ages than the Milankovitch cycles.