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General Characteristics of the Sun

The sun is a star of about medium size; it appears so much larger and brighter than the other stars because of its relative nearness to the earth. The earth's distance from the sun varies from 91,377,000 mi (147,053,000 km) at perihelion to 94,537,000 mi (152,138,000 km) at aphelion (see apsis). The mean distance is c.92,960,000 mi (149,591,000 km); this is taken as the astronomical unit (AU) of distance used for measuring distances within the solar system. The sun is approximately 865,400 mi (1,392,000 km) in diameter, and its volume is about 1,300,000 times that of the earth. Its mass is almost 700 times the total mass of all the bodies in the solar system and 332,000 times that of the earth. The sun's surface gravity is almost 28 times that of the earth; i.e., a body on the surface of the sun would weigh about 28 times its weight on earth. The density of the material composing the sun is about one fourth that of the earth; compared with water, the sun's average density is 1.41. At its center, the sun has a density of over 100 times that of water, a temperature of 10 to 20 million degrees Celsius, and a pressure of over 1 billion atmospheres.

Observations of sunspots and studies of the solar spectrum indicate that the sun rotates on its axis from east to west; because of its gaseous nature its rate of rotation varies somewhat with latitude, the speed being greatest (a period of almost 25 days) in the equatorial region and least at the poles (a period of about 35 days). The axis of the sun is inclined at an angle of about 7° to the plane of the ecliptic.

The bright surface of the sun is called the photosphere. Its temperature is about 6,000°C. The photosphere appears darker near the edge (limb) of the sun's disk because of greater absorption of light by the sun's atmosphere in this area; this phenomenon is called limb darkening. During an eclipse of the sun the chromosphere and the corona (the outer layers of the sun's atmosphere) are observed. Also of interest is the high-speed, tenuous extension of the corona known as the solar wind.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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