Magnetic sun: Living on Earth means dealing with gravity |

Magnetic sun: Living on Earth means dealing with gravity

Alan Stahler
Special to The Union

Living on Earth, the big challenge — the really big challenge — is gravity.

Earth's gravity pulls everything toward its core, and fighting that force – starting with getting out of bed in the morning – takes effort. For those living on Earth, gravity is first and foremost.

Living on the surface of the sun is different. Gravity is still important on the sun, but equally — often more — important … the force to fight is magnetism.

Of course, this assumes you can live on the surface of the sun without being vaporized. No known substance can survive the sun's 9,600-degree Fahrenheit surface temperature in the solid or liquid state.

Even gaseous atoms have a tough time holding themselves together at Fahrenheit 9,600 degrees. At that temperature, they careen into each other so violently they do damage – they knock electrons off themselves.

The surface of the sun is composed of loose electrons and atoms that have lost those electrons: ions.

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Both ions and electrons are electrically charged. They flow over the sun's surface … below the sun's surface … above the sun's surface … in rivers, fountains, whirlpools.

When electrically charged particles flow, they generate magnetic fields. Composed entirely of charged particles, all in motion, the surface of the sun — and the regions above and below — are alive with magnetic fields … magnetic fields so intense, yet also so twisted, so contorted, they're often in conflict, pushing and pulling on each other (and on the charged particles whose motions created them). Experience such conflict yourself — in miniature — by holding two magnets close, north pole to south (they pull toward each other), then north pole to north or south to south (they push away).

Above the sun's surface is its atmosphere. The sun's atmosphere is nothing like the air we breathe. It's composed of electrically charged particles flung off the surface by the twisted, contorted magnetic fields they've created.

While the sun's surface is hot — thousands of degrees — its outer atmosphere is way hotter: millions of degrees. This is baffling because the sun's atmosphere must be warmed by the regions below … which are colder. Imagine heating your tea water with an ice cube.

Perhaps something is actively transporting energy from below … magnetic fields, for instance.

A spacecraft — IRIS, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph — will launch tonight to study the magnetic fields at play between the sun's surface and its atmosphere. Bart DePontieu, IRIS science lead, suggests magnetic fields may act like rubber bands, stretched so hard they snap, with the loose ends whipping around to inject energy into whatever skin they strike … or like guitar strings, whose vibrations put sound energy into the air.

IRIS will launch from the West Coast, so if you've got a view to the west, check out the horizon just after sunset when the rocket's exhaust, lit by the sun over the Pacific, may be visible.

Al Stahler's science programs can be heard on KVMR (89.5 FM). He may be reached at

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