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16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy

The Sun produces an enormous amount of energy every second. Since Earth and the solar system are roughly 4.5 billion years old, this means that the Sun has been producing vast amounts for energy for a very, very long time. Neither chemical burning nor gravitational contraction can account for the total amount of energy radiated by the Sun during all this time.

16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity

Solar energy is produced by interactions of particles—that is, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons, and neutrinos. Specifically, the source of the Sun’s energy is the fusion of hydrogen to form helium. The series of reactions required to convert hydrogen to helium is called the proton-proton chain. A helium atom is about 0.71% less massive than the four hydrogen atoms that combine to form it, and that lost mass is converted to energy (with the amount of energy given by the formula E = mc2).

16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory

Even though we cannot see inside the Sun, it is possible to calculate what its interior must be like. As input for these calculations, we use what we know about the Sun. It is made entirely of hot gas. Apart from some very tiny changes, the Sun is neither expanding nor contracting (it is in hydrostatic equilibrium) and puts out energy at a constant rate. Fusion of hydrogen occurs in the center of the Sun, and the energy generated is carried to the surface by radiation and then convection. A solar model describes the structure of the Sun’s interior. Specifically, it describes how pressure, temperature, mass, and luminosity depend on the distance from the center of the Sun.

16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations

Studies of solar oscillations (helioseismology) and neutrinos can provide observational data about the Sun’s interior. The technique of helioseismology has so far shown that the composition of the interior is much like that of the surface (except in the core, where some of the original hydrogen has been converted into helium), and that the convection zone extends about 30% of the way from the Sun’s surface to its center. Helioseismology can also detect active regions on the far side of the Sun and provide better predictions of solar storms that may affect Earth. Neutrinos from the Sun call tell us about what is happening in the solar interior. A recent experiment has shown that solar models do predict accurately the number of electron neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions in the core of the Sun. However, two-thirds of these neutrinos are converted into different types of neutrinos during their long journey from the Sun to Earth, a result that also indicates that neutrinos are not massless particles.

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