Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How do we know what the sun is made of?

  1. Feb 16, 2005 #1
    We all know that stars, for example the sun, are made up of particles such as hydrogen, but a friend challenged me recenlty asking HOW we know this, and I was forced to admit that I didn't know the answer....

    so how do we know? probably a simple question, but my so-called "expertise" is more in the realm of computers and programming than physics and science :blushing:
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 16, 2005 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

  4. Feb 16, 2005 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Just as a footnote to Astronuc's post, this particular field of science is called spectroscopy. It is an invaluable tool with many earthly, as well as astronomical applications.
  5. Feb 17, 2005 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    To clarify, you can break up the sunlight into its various wavelengths and you will see gaps in that spectrum. Each element (like hydrogen, helium, etc.) causes specific gaps in the spectrum.

    Helium was discovered on the sun before it was found on Earth (which explains how the element was named...from the Greek word for their sun god "Helios").

    As mentioned, spectroscopy can be used for more than just the sun....starlight, light emitted from nebulae, atmospheres of other planets, etc.
  6. Feb 18, 2005 #5
    Thanx guys :)
  7. Feb 18, 2005 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    And if it's just the Sun (a.k.a. sol) your friend was asking about, then we can also say that we've collected bits of the Sun that it didn't want, and analysed them (the solar wind). We've also extracted 'old solar wind' from the soil on the Moon, and so we know what the Sun was 'exhaling' over a very long time (several billion years?)
  8. Feb 14, 2010 #7
    I still don't understand how spectroscopy explains what the sun is made of. It seems to me that this only tells us what the sun is "burning" at the moment. How do we know that the sun's core doesn't consists of different elements, perhaps packed into dense layers like the jawbreaker candy, so that eventually the sun will stop burning hydrogen and start "burning" something else?
  9. Feb 14, 2010 #8


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    No, emission and absorption spectra have nothing to do with what generates the heat, but rather what is giving off the heat. For example, a nebula such as the Horsehead nebula is back-lit by stars and glows red because it is made of Hydrogen and hydrogen's main emission lines are red. For the sun, the fusion happens in the core, but the emission and absorption spectra are from the matter on the surface and in the corona - and we can detect other elements besides hydrogen in the spectra.
    Actually, it will eventually start burning (fusing) other things, such as helium. You can't directly observe what goes on inside a star, but by watching them evolve and measuring the amounts of certain elements, and applying nuclear physics you can deduce what must be happening.
  10. Feb 22, 2010 #9
    True, but there are two things that you can do.....

    1) you can run computer models assuming that the sun is made up of X, Y, and Z and see what happens, and try to match those models with observations

    2) you can also do heliosesmiology. What happens is that you look at waves that you see on the surface of the sun, and since those waves go through the interior of the sun you can get a lot of detailed information about pressure and density which you they match with your computer models.
  11. Feb 22, 2010 #10
    I was going to mention helioseismology, but you beat me to it! This is a very interesting field of research, in my opinion. There's a great article about using the principles of helioseismology to study other stars http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100215100611.htm".
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  12. Mar 3, 2010 #11
    Indeed, but it is important to note that the only observable that tell us what is happening inside the star is the neutrino! Although it is hard task to detect them.
  13. Mar 3, 2010 #12
    Helioseismology (i.e. seeing how pressure waves go through the sun) tells you a lot about what is going on inside the sun just like most of what we know about the earth comes from studying how earthquake waves go through the earth.

    As far as the solar neutrino problem, there were two possibilities. Either there was something strange going on in the middle of the sun or there was something strange going on with neutrinos. Helioseismology pretty much ruled out something weird happening in the center of the sun. When you see how pressure waves go through the sun, you end up with densities, pressures, and temperatures that are exactly what the computer models predict.
  14. Mar 4, 2010 #13
    Was not the neutrino problem solved? With the oscilation between their 3 flavors? Or you just mentioned that there was the solar neutrino problem...?

    I really do not know anything about helioseismology, how it works and it's results. Does the observations lead to something different predicted from the models?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook