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The Sun is the nearest star to Earth and is the center of the solar system. It is only 8 light-minutes away from Earth, meaning light takes only eight minutes to travel from the Sun to Earth. The next nearest star is 4 light-years away, so light from this star, Proxima Centauri (part of the triple star Alpha Centauri), takes four years to reach Earth. The Sun's closeness means that the light and other energy we get from the Sun dominate Earth’s environment and life. The Sun also provides a way for astronomers to study stars. They can see details and layers of the Sun that are impossible to see on more distant stars. In addition, the Sun provides a laboratory for studying hot gases held in place by magnetic fields. Scientists would like to create similar conditions (hot gases contained by magnetic fields) on Earth. Creating such environments could be useful for studying basic physics.

Regions of the Sun include the core, radiation zone, convection zone, and photosphere. Gases in the core are about 150 times as dense as water and reach temperatures as high as 16 million degrees C (29 million degrees F). The Sun’s energy is produced in the core through nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. In the radiation zone, heat flows outward through gases that are about as dense as water. The radiation zone is cooler than the core, about 2.5 million degrees C (4.5 million degrees F). In the convection zone, churning motions of the gases carry the Sun’s energy further outward. The convection zone is slightly cooler, about 2 million degrees C (3.6 million degrees F), and less dense, about one-tenth as dense as water. The photosphere is much cooler, about 5500° C (10,000° F) and much less dense, about one-millionth that of water. The turbulence of this region is visible from earth in the form of sunspots, solar flares, and small patches of gas called granules.

The Sun produces its energy by fusing hydrogen into helium in a process called nuclear fusion. In nuclear fusion, two atoms merge to form a heavier atom and release energy (see Nuclear Energy: Nuclear Fusion). The Sun and stars of similar mass start off with enough hydrogen to shine for about 10 billion years. The Sun is less than halfway through its lifetime.

 

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