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What Are the Layers of the Sun?

 
By German Portillo. September 26, 2023
What Are the Layers of the Sun?

The different layers of the sun are the core, radiative zone, convective zone, photosphere, chromosphere and corona. Each of them has a specific function and certain characteristics that distinguish them. The sun is the largest and closest star to our planet, located 93 million miles (150 million km) from Earth. The planets are attracted by its great gravitational attraction and orbit around the sun. It is classified as a G2-type yellow dwarf and is neither particularly large nor small, compared to other stars in the Milky Way. In this thedailyECO article, we find out what are the different parts of the sun and their functions by asking what are the layers of the sun?

Why does the sun have layers?

As with all stars, the Sun is made of layers. This is due to complex processes that occur during its formation and evolution. No astronomer has been able to see inside a star, but we do know some things from our understanding of astrophysics. We have been able to determine they have layers due to the balance between gravitational forces pulling inward and the pressure generated by nuclear fusion reactions pushing outward.

The exact nature of how the Sun was formed and the functions of the Sun's layers are not yet known. However, the most common belief is that it was formed by the following two-part process:

  • Nebular theory: claims the Sun formed from a massive cloud of gas and dust in space, a process described by the nebular theory. This cloud was called a solar nebula and began to collapse under the influence of gravity.

  • Protostar formation: as the solar nebula contracted, it started to spin and flatten into a spinning disk. In the center of this disk, a dense, hot region began to form, which eventually became the Sun's core.

The formation of the layers of the Sun is a result of the Sun's evolving physical conditions, with temperature, pressure and density varying significantly from the core to the outer layers. These layers are maintained by the balance between gravitational forces compressing the Sun's material and the energy generated by nuclear fusion reactions pushing outward. The complex interplay of these forces leads to the formation of the Sun's layered structure.

Now we know how the layers of the Sun were formed, we can look at these layers individually.

What Are the Layers of the Sun? - Why does the sun have layers?

Core

At the heart of the Sun lies its core, a region where the nuclear reactions that drive its characteristic brightness and heat occur. In this extremely hot and dense environment, hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium through the process of nuclear fusion. This transformation releases a huge amount of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, including light and heat.

The intensity of these reactions is so extraordinary that it is balanced by the immense gravity of the Sun, maintaining its stability and ensuring its constant glow. Every second, the core converts around 4.2 million tons of matter into pure energy. In doing so, it maintains the balance between the gravity that tends to collapse the Sun and the pressure generated by these nuclear reactions.

Radiative zone

This is the layer around the core of the Sun. In this layer, photons embark on a random journey as they interact with charged particles. These photons are particles of light that can take thousands of years to travel from the core to the surface of the Sun. This is due to the density of the material they pass through.

As photons collide and are reabsorbed and reemitted, they eventually make their way out of this layer and radiate out into space. This process of energy transport through radiation is fundamental for the thermal balance of the Sun.

Learn more about the Sun's light energy with our article on why the Sun is yellow.

Convective zone

The convective zone is located beyond the radiative zone and presents a different form of heat transfer. Hot material rises while the cooled material descends in a continuous cycle of convection. These convective movements transport heat efficiently to the surface of the Sun. It is in this layer that convective cells are generated, creating visible patterns as granules in the photosphere.

This convection process contributes to the mixing of elements and helps maintain the temperature and stability of the Sun. In addition, these currents can carry with them the magnetism generated in deeper layers, contributing to the formation of sunspots and other magnetic solar phenomena.

What Are the Layers of the Sun? - Convective zone

Photosphere

The photosphere is the outermost and most visible layer of the Sun. It is the part that we see as the bright solar disk from Earth. The temperature in the photosphere decreases with altitude, giving rise to notable features such as sunspots and granular networks. These sunspots are cooler regions in the photosphere caused by strong magnetic fields. These spots are cyclical and are related to the approximately 11-year cycle of solar activity.

Granules are small cellular structures that are the result of the convective process in the convective zone. Each granule measures about 1,500 km in diameter and lasts only about 20 minutes before dissolving. The photosphere is a transitional place between the inner and outer layers of the Sun. It is fundamental to our observation and understanding of this star.

The Sun is one of the celestial bodies in our galaxy. Learn more about the different types of celestial bodies with our related article.

Chromosphere

Above the photosphere extends the chromosphere, a layer that is thinner, but hotter than the layer below. During solar eclipses, the chromosphere is visible as a ring of reddish light called a prominence. Magnetic phenomena are more prominent in this layer of the Sun. It is where the solar wind originates. This is a constant stream of charged particles that flows from the Sun into interplanetary space and can interact with the magnetic fields of planets and other celestial bodies. The chromosphere plays a crucial role in the interaction between the Sun and its cosmic environment.

We can learn more about how magnetic forces affect celestial bodies with our article on what is the magnetosphere?

What Are the Layers of the Sun? - Chromosphere

Corona

The outermost layer of the Sun is the corona. This external part extends up to millions of kilometers through space from the surface of the sun. Despite its remoteness from the hottest regions of the Sun, the corona is surprisingly hot. It has temperatures far exceeding those of the photosphere.

The corona's extremely high temperature manifests itself in phenomena such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are violent explosions of material and energy from the corona into space. These events can have a significant impact on Earth, causing geomagnetic or solar storms and auroras. The corona also plays a crucial role in forming the solar wind and generating the stream of charged particles that flows through the solar system.

The corona is visible during solar eclipses as a bright white halo around the darkened Moon. Although its precise origin is not yet fully understood, the solar corona is an essential piece in the study of solar activity and its influence on the Solar System.

Now we know about the different parts of the Sun and their functions, we can discover more about its relation and importance for us. We do so with our article on why the Earth revolves around the Sun.

If you want to read similar articles to What Are the Layers of the Sun?, we recommend you visit our Facts about Earth and the universe category.

Bibliography
  • Retuerto Gutiérrez, S., & Revilla, D. (2015). Systematic observation of the Sun in white light. Science Magazine, (5), 19-29.

  • Bachelor, R. (2009). The sun: our star, our energy. National Astronomical Observatory. National Geographic Institute-Ministry of Development, 381-382.

  • Grevesse N., Asplund M., Sauval A. J., and Scott P. (2011). The chemical composition of the sun. Canadian Journal of Physics, 89(4): 327-331. https://doi.org/10.1139/p10-119

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