The Sun is so bright that we can't even look at it. As a matter of fact, you should never look directly at the Sun. It could permanently damage your eyes. However, scientists are able to see the surface of the Sun and study it with special telescopes. It turns out that the Sun has some interesting features. We'll take a look at a few of them here including sunspots, solar winds, and solar flares.
Sunspots are caused by magnetic activity in the Sun. Source: NASA.
Sunspots are dark areas that appear on the surface of the Sun. They are caused by strong magnetic activity within the Sun. Sunspots are not permanent and they can move slowly across the surface of Sun changing size as they move.
The appearance of sunspots follows the solar cycle of eleven years. Every eleven years there will be a period of increased sunspot activity. Sunspots vary in size from as small as 10,000 miles across to as large as 100,000 miles across.
The Sun is so powerful and energetic that it actually creates a type of wind that travels throughout the Solar System. This wind is called the solar wind. The solar wind is a continuous stream of charged particles that flows out of the Sun in all directions.
The strength of the solar wind varies depending on the activity on the surface of the Sun. The Earth is mostly protected from the solar wind by its strong magnetic field. However, some types of activity, like solar flares, can cause high energy particles to emit from the Sun which can be dangerous to astronauts and can cause damage to satellites orbiting Earth.
The Earth's magnetic field protects us from the solar wind. Source: Public Domain.
Sometimes areas of the Sun will suddenly appear much brighter. These bright spots are called solar flares. They are areas where a large amount of energy is released to the surface of the Sun.
Solar flares emit bursts of electromagnetic radiation including high energy X-rays and gamma rays. The energy released by a single solar flare can be more powerful than a million nuclear bombs going off at the same time.
Solar flares coming off the Sun. Source: NASA.
The high energy particles released from a solar flare can reach Earth in just a few minutes. These particles can damage electronic components in satellites and can also affect some radio signals.
Interesting Facts about Sunspots, Solar Winds, and Flares
Sunspots are actually fairly bright, but they appear dark because the rest of the Sun is so much brighter.
Solar flares are often followed by a large ejection of plasma from the surface of the Sun called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).
Auroras such as the "aurora borealis" or the "northern lights" are caused by the solar wind hitting the Earth's atmosphere.
Sunspots often appear in pairs.
The Sun loses around 5 billion tons of mass per hour from the solar wind.
Sunspots were observed as far back as 364 BC by astronomers in Ancient China.