The Study of the Sun

By means of the spectroscope much has been learned about the composition of the sun. There are numerous dark lines of varying widths in the solar spectrum. These were first intensively studied by Joseph Fraunhofer and are commonly known by his name. From a study of the lines the chemical composition of the sun is determined on the basis of the discovery by Kirchhoff that the dark lines correspond in position to the bright lines characteristic of the spectra produced by elements in the laboratory. The darkness of the lines in the sun's spectrum is attributed to the presence of a slightly cooler layer of gases above the photosphere, known as the reversing layer, which absorbs selectively the light of the photosphere and thus causes dark lines instead of bright ones to be observed through the spectroscope. By comparison of the sun's spectrum with laboratory spectra of incandescent elements, most of the elements known on earth have been identified in the sun's atmosphere.

Beyond the red portion of the visible solar spectrum is the infrared spectrum; for the study of these heat rays S. P. Langley invented the bolometer, a highly sensitive electrical device for measuring temperature. Solar heat and energy are measured by an instrument called the pyrheliometer. Other instruments devised especially for the study of the sun are the coronagraph and the spectroheliograph. These instruments and others have revealed a number of interesting phenomena occurring during the periods of solar activity associated with sunspots, e.g., faculae, plages (flocculi), prominences, flares, and coronal mass ejections (eruptions of charged particles into space).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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