Science Friday: Sun Science

What does the Sun do?

What does it do to other things like comets and plants and cells? How does it produce so much energy? How does it change from day to day?

In this collection from Science Friday, experience the sun as an ever-changing, ever-present force in our solar system through interviews with scientists, inventors, and everyday observers.

  • Comet's Tail Shines Light on the Sun

    In 2011, Comet Lovejoy traveled through the sun’s corona and lived to tell the tale. But its tail was the most telling. Reporting in the journal Science, Cooper Downs, an astrophysicist at Predictive Science Inc. in San Diego, California, says that the wiggly path of the comet’s tail helps explain the sun’s magnetic field.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Eruptions on the Sun Set Off "Solar Tsunamis"

    Two eruptions on the sun sent solar tsunamis sweeping across its surface. Physicist David Long reported on the tsunamis in the journal Solar Physics, and he says the waves allowed him to calculate the magnetic field of a “quiet” area on the solar surface, which is 10 times weaker than a fridge magnet.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Printing Solar Panels in the Backyard

    Imagine what you might do if you could print your own solar panels. That's kind of the dream behind Shawn Frayne and Alex Hornstein's Solar Pocket Factory -- although they see it more as the "microbrewery" of panel production rather than a tool for everyone's garage. With over $70,000 of backing from a successful Kickstarter campaign, the inventors are now working on refining the prototype. If all goes well, by April they'll have a machine that can spit out a micro solar panel every few seconds. In the meantime, Frayne stopped by Flora Lichtman's backyard with a few pieces of the prototype to explain how the mini-factory will work.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Solar Spotting

    Using the Swedish Solar Telescope, a ground-based observatory, Goran Scharmer and colleagues probe the penumbra--that's the stringy structure around the perimeter of the dark part of the sunspot. The images give scientists new insight into how that structure forms.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Manhattanhenge: Watch A Star Align

    Twice a year, the sunset lines up with New York City's street grid -- making for spectacular views. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, identified the cosmic event over a decade ago and coined it Manhattanhenge. Last weekend was the first Manhattanhenge of 2009 -- we watched the sun from 42nd street, along with about 50 other astronomical enthusiasts.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Magnified Sun Burns

    Ready for some fun in the sun? At the right angle, a magnifying glass will concentrate sunshine into a burning hot circle. Thomas Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, explains how to calculate the solar intensity of that spot by taking some simple measurements. By the way, the magnifying glass fire-starter helps explains why it's dangerous to stare directly at the sun.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Seeing A Star In A New Light

    NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in February, has started to send back data. The instruments are giving solar scientists an unprecedented look at the sun, says Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist. The hope is to better understand how solar activity--solar flares, coronal mass ejections, coronal holes--is linked to the sun's magnetic field.

    Grades: 6-12
  • What's Your IQ on SPF?

    In an unscientific survey of Times Square, Science Friday found that not one passerby could explain how sunscreen works. Dermatologist Jennifer Linder explains that and other basics of sun protection, including the meaning of SPF, and whether sunscreen blocks vitamin D production.

    Grades: 6-12