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Background information on NASA’s Living with a Star initiative

  The Sun
   This solar image was taken by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope aboard NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft.

Reliable, constant, unchanging. This is the way we think about our Sun. An ‘old faithful’ source of energy and heat. The Inca thought that the Sun has the power to makes things grow. And it does. But research has shown us that the Sun is a tremendously violent, variable, magnetic star whose activity affects the Earth and planets in fundamental ways. The Earth is constantly bathed by the solar wind, a stream of charged, high-speed particles traveling at an average of 250 miles (~400 km) per second. Thus the Earth is physically within the atmosphere of the Sun. The solar wind shapes the Earth’s magnetosphere, and solar magnetic storms and massive particle ejections from the corona affect the Earth, and can disrupt communications, damage satellites, and even cause blackouts.

Total solar eclipses gave scientists early clues about the active nature of the Sun, by allowing researchers to see and study the Sun’s corona, which is typically hidden by the bright solar photosphere that gives rise to the Sun’s visible light. The corona is composed of tenuous, million degree gas, much hotter than lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, and harbors much of the Sun’s activity. Since it is physically impossible to transfer thermal energy from the cooler surface of the Sun to the much hotter corona, the source of coronal heating has been a scientific mystery for more than 60 years. This and other research questions continue to puzzle scientists, who are now able to use sophisticated satellite instrumentation to observe the corona and study the activity of the Sun—striving to understand the consequences of “Living with a Star.”

Living with a Star (LWS) is a NASA initiative that addresses aspects of the Sun-Earth system that affect life and society. As the sphere of the human environment and exploration continues to expand towards space, understanding the effects of our active Sun and ‘space weather’ on astronaut safety, satellite operations, power and communications, and climate change become critical research priorities. We need to understand and be able to predict the effects of solar activity on Earth and society. Just as satellites help us better understand changes in weather around our Earth, a "Living With a Star" constellation of satellites will help us better understand how our star can affect many of the advanced technologies we have become so dependent on for everything from economic livelihood to national defense. LWS will provide the data necessary for advanced warning of solar energetic particle showers that affect the safety of humans in space. It will improve our understanding of the effects of solar variability and disturbances on terrestrial climate changes, and will provide information useful in the design of more reliable electronics for air and space transportation and communication systems.

Total eclipses have, over the years, provided a unique opportunity to see our Sun ‘in a different light’ from the portrayal of the Sun as a constant and relatively tame source of heat and energy. NASA solar research has enabled scientists to understand the consequences of solar storms and space weather on all aspects of the human endeavor—from a person relying on a pager for communication to astronauts in space.

Globe icon Learn more about Living with a Star on the NASA Web site.

Globe icon Learn more about Sun-Earth Connection on the Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum Web site.

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