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A Solar Celebration Comes This June 22

June 11, 2014

Things are  heating up  this month at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. On June 22, we will participate in the first annual International Sun-Day, complete with presentations on current solar research, Sun-focused activities, and solar observing with special telescopes available to visitors throughout the day.

The Sun is our star. It warms our solar system, as we probably most clearly notice in the more tropical summer months when our part of the Earth is tilted toward the Sun. While the Sun is a relatively average-sized star compared to all the stars in the Galaxy, it is critical for our existence, and for life as we know it to thrive on this planet. Nearly 99.9 percent of the mass of the solar system is wrapped up in the Sun, making it one of the most important components of our solar system for astronomers to understand as part of a complete picture of how our solar system formed and evolved.

Full view of the Sun as seen in Ultraviolet light. Solar flares are visible as bright regions (Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA).

Full view of the Sun as seen in Ultraviolet light. Solar flares are visible as bright regions (Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA).

The Sun has been our star for roughly 4.6 billion years, and in about 5 billion more years it will expand to become a Red Giant, swallowing the Earth and other bodies in its radius, and eventually fade away.

In the meantime, as scientists are exploring far-away planets, moons and icy bodies at the edge of the solar system, we still have many unanswered questions related to our Sun, the  precise details on how the solar system formed  from a cloud of gas and dust, why Earth continues to be a habitable planet, while life is absent on the other rocky planets, including Earth’s “twin”, Venus, and how life on a planet will be affected in the long-term by its parent star.

Toward answering these and many other related questions, several missions are now studying the Sun from low-Earth orbit (altitudes between 100 and 1200 miles overhead). Solar astronomers (or, heliophysicists) are using these missions to study the Sun’s magnetic field and surface details, including plasma eruptions, flares, sunspots and solar wind that can bring high-energy radiation toward the Earth, leading to space weather, potentially influencing communication satellites and astronauts on the International Space Station, with possible negative impact on human life and health.

Current missions supporting the study of the Sun and solar-planetary interactions. Earth is shown             just right of center (NASA).

Current missions supporting the study of the Sun and solar-planetary interactions. Earth is shown just right of center (NASA).

As we are in a period of high solar activity, these missions are revealing previously unseen details related to the Sun’s influence on our planet. Below is a video showing a solar eruption called a coronal mass ejection, as seen by the current space observatories: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), and the joint ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO):

Join us on June 22, 2014, for a fun-filled day of solar presentations, solar observing (weather permitting), and activities for all ages. This is also the first Sunday following our Summer Solstice — the day where the Northern Hemisphere is maximally inclined toward the Sun, marking the first day of Summer!

Remember! NEVER look at the Sun with your unprotected eyes, or with equipment that is not specifically made for observing the Sun. 

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Dr. Rachel Smith is an observational astronomer. She uses the Keck Observatory in infrared wavelengths to study the detailed chemistry of protoplanetary systems in our Galaxy; these are exoplanetary systems before the planets form. Her work focuses on the gas surrounding protostars — forming stars before they start burning hydrogen and helium like our Sun, and other stars far beyond our solar system.  Dr. Smith uses the data from these exoplanetary systems to help fill gaps in our knowledge on how our solar system and other planetary systems form and evolve. Read more about Dr. Smith’s research here.

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