It’s no exaggeration to say that the Earth and the people who occupy the planet couldn’t get through one day without the sun. The sun sits at the center of our solar system, and all of our activities revolve around it, as the sun’s light, warmth, and energy fuel our daily lives. Scientifically speaking, the sun is more than just the biggest star in our sky: It’s a yellow dwarf and regularly provides us with new insights into our Milky Way galaxy and its place in the universe. The sun is particularly suited for scientific investigation because of its composition, features, and energy-producing abilities. Learning about the sun teaches us about ourselves, the galaxy’s history, and how much we depend on this giant ball of incandescent plasma to light up our lives.
Given how big the sun is, it’s no surprise that it’s the centerpiece of the part of space that we call home. The sun is so large that it holds 99.86% of our star system’s entire mass! Its huge size gives it a powerful gravitational pull that keeps all of its surrounding planets, including Earth, safely in place and revolving around it. This incredible star is more than a million times the size of Earth and is composed of 74% hydrogen, 24% helium, and 2% carbon, iron, oxygen, and neon. All of these elements interact to give us the light, energy, and heat that we feel every day.
At 4.5 billion years old, the sun is no new kid on the block. As impressive as this giant, glowing ball in the sky is, it is only one star of the millions that make up the Milky Way galaxy. Other stars in our galaxy can be even bigger and hotter than the sun, but we perceive the sun as the largest and brightest star because of our proximity to it; we’re only 92.96 million miles away from it, which makes us next-door neighbors in galactic terms. In fact, it only takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach Earth after it leaves the sun! Among the many different types of stars in the sky are red dwarf, yellow dwarf, blue giant, giant, and super giant. Though the majority of stars in the Milky Way galaxy are red dwarfs, our sun happens to be a yellow dwarf.
When you consider that the sun is responsible for our seasons, food-growing practices, and sleep cycles, it’s easy to see why many cultures throughout history have worshiped the sun and incorporated it into their religious practices. The sun’s light and warmth breathes life into innumerable organisms on Earth. The sun is quite literally a hub of energy: Its high makeup of hydrogen and helium results in a continuous nuclear fusion process. Its fascinating features, like solar winds and flares and sunspots, guarantee continuous and powerful activity. For example, winds can shoot off of the sun and affect other planets, and just one flare can boast as much energy and impact as more than a million man-made nuclear bombs found on Earth.
Eclipses are some of the most spectacular sights in the sky, and people on Earth are exceptionally lucky when they’re able to safely observe the total versions of them. When the moon blocks the sun from the Earth, a solar eclipse takes place; these eclipses can be classified as partial, total, annular, or hybrid. In contrast, a lunar eclipse occurs if the Earth moves between the Sun and moon; these eclipses can be categorized as total, partial, and penumbral. Ancient civilizations were able to predict when an eclipse would occur by paying attention to the cycles of heavenly bodies in the sky. Today, we use orbits and mathematical concepts, like geometry and algebra, to determine when future eclipses will arrive in our sky.
For young students, observing and studying the sun is an important part of understanding it, but it must be done safely: The sun’s surface temperature is a blistering 10,000°F, and it’s so bright that looking at it can hurt your eyes. Staring directly at the sun during the day or even while a solar eclipse occurs can irreversibly damage your eyes’ sensitive rods and cones. If you’re interested in viewing an eclipse, do so by looking through special eclipse glasses, telescope filters, welding glasses, or pinhole or telescopic projections. While conducting experiments outside, cover your skin with loose-fitting clothes so you don’t get sunburn, use sunscreen, stay hydrated, and take breaks to avoid heat-related complications.
Visit the following links to learn more about the sun and find experiments you can conduct in class or at home:
- Why Do We Study the Sun?
- Our Sun
- Fun Sun Facts for Kids
- Planets for Kids: The Sun
- Does the Sun Have a Proper Name?
- Simple Sun Overview
- Scholastic’s Sun Article
- A Profile of the Sun
- Lessons About the Sun and Earth’s Climate
- All-American Total Solar Eclipse (PDF)
- European Space Agency’s Solar Eclipse for Kids
- Solar and Lunar Eclipses
- How Do Scientists Predict Eclipses?
- Rules for Observing a Solar Eclipse
- Solar Viewing Safety
- American Skin Association Sun Safety Guidelines
- Sunspots, Solar Winds, and Flares
- Five Amazing Facts: Solar Flares
- Types of Stars
- Star Light
- Milky Way Facts
- Sun and Solar System Science Fair Projects
- Solar Energy Science Projects (PDF)
- Sundial Experiment for Middle-School Students (PDF)
- Solar Matters Experiment: Ice Cube Race (PDF)
- Measuring Sun Angles for Experiments (PDF)
- Exploring Solar Storms and Activity Cycles (PDF)
- What Does the Sun Give Us? Projects for Students (PDF)
- Solar Activities for Students (PDF)
- Necklace and Key Chain Sundial Project