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Under The Martinborough Stars

March 12, 2020 March 2020 No Comments

One hundred and forty-seven million kilometres away from the Earth, lies an important object. Something so massive that it takes up 99% of the matter in the Solar System, is 4.6 billion years old but feels like we have seen only a glimpse of it this summer in Martinborough.

I am of course talking about the Sun. It is incredible. An average yellow star in a relatively empty area of the Milky Way Galaxy, this glowing orb dictates our daily lives, keeps us warm and allows life to flourish.

Our Sun is only one of the billions and billions (sorry Carl Sagan) of stars in our galaxy and a pretty average one at that. It’s not the biggest or smallest, the hottest or the coolest nor it is the oldest or youngest. It’s pretty much average. It doesn’t even have a companion star, something that we have realised recently is a fairly common occurrence in our Universe.

We know that stars create heat and light through nuclear fusion, ripping elements apart then crushing them together to create something new. Our Sun is mainly hydrogen and helium with a smattering of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon.

The process of nuclear fusion happens within the core of the sun where it is a staggering 15 million degrees Celsius, to hot to even imagine. From here, the photons of light take 200,000 years to reach the outer layers of the sun, the photosphere, where it then takes eight and a half minutes to reach the Earth. Even as we look at our Sun, we are looking into the past. 

We know quite a lot about our Sun, but with everything in astronomy there is so much more to discover, so in 2018 NASA’s launched the Parker Solar Probe on a mission to ‘poke’ the Sun.  

The Parker Solar Probe is completely robotic, and cleverly designed to take the full heat and radiation of the Sun from such proximity. The size of a small car, the probe will always face its heat shield towards the sun, keeping more fragile instruments in its shade.

Currently, the probe is on it’s 4th loop around the Sun and is aiming to continue to collect data for the next four years. It is discovering new things about the sun’s solar winds, magnetic fields and its frequent outbursts. Using this information, scientists can better prepare for space missions and how to keep equipment safe. We can also use this to think about other stars and their properties.

Warning! You must never look at the Sun directly. However, you can purchase special solar glasses which only let in 1% of light to your eyes. If you are lucky, you can see sunspots on the surface, areas of slightly cooler plasma.

Cross your fingers that the Sun makes a more frequent appearance in Martinborough in the next few weeks and you can think about how incredible our own star is, the Sun. 


Becky Bateman runs Under The Stars, an award-winning astro tourism business in the Wairarapa


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