The Sun, our star, has several layers beneath the visible surface: the core, radiative zone, and convective zone. These, in turn, are surrounded by a number of layers that make up the solar atmosphere. In order of increasing distance from the center of the Sun, they are the photosphere, with a temperature that ranges from 4500 K to about 6800 K; the chromosphere, with a typical temperature of 104 K; the transition region, a zone that may be only a few kilometers thick, where the temperature increases rapidly from 104 K to 106 K; and the corona, with temperatures of a few million K. The Sun’s surface is mottled with upwelling convection currents seen as hot, bright granules. Solar wind particles stream out into the solar system through coronal holes. When such particles reach the vicinity of Earth, they produce auroras, which are strongest near Earth’s magnetic poles. Hydrogen and helium together make up 98% of the mass of the Sun, whose composition is much more characteristic of the universe at large than is the composition of Earth.
Sunspots are dark regions where the temperature is up to 2000 K cooler than the surrounding photosphere. Their motion across the Sun’s disk allows us to calculate how fast the Sun turns on its axis. The Sun rotates more rapidly at its equator, where the rotation period is about 25 days, than near the poles, where the period is slightly longer than 36 days. The number of visible sunspots varies according to a sunspot cycle that averages 11 years in length. Spots frequently occur in pairs. During a given 11-year cycle, all leading spots in the Northern Hemisphere have the same magnetic polarity, whereas all leading sports in the Southern Hemisphere have the opposite polarity. In the subsequent 11-year cycle, the polarity reverses. For this reason, the magnetic activity cycle of the Sun is understood to last for 22 years. This activity cycle is connected with the behavior of the Sun’s magnetic field, but the exact mechanism is not yet understood.
Signs of more intense solar activity, an increase in the number of sunspots, as well as prominences, plages, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections, all tend to occur in active regions—that is, in places on the Sun with the same latitude and longitude but at different heights in the atmosphere. Active regions vary with the solar cycle, just like sunspots do.
Space weather is the effect of solar activity on our own planet, both in our magnetosphere and on Earth’s surface. Coronal holes allow more of the Sun’s material to flow out into space. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can cause auroras, disrupt communications, damage satellites, and cause power outages on Earth.