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Compact Cosmos

28 29 THENEIGHBORHOODSTAR a glimpse of the sun Providing most of lifes energy on this planet, our sun is a colossal nuclear fusion reactor that forges two hydrogen atoms into one helium while giving off heat, light, and other radiation as by products. It can take hundreds of thousands of years for a photon of light to barge its way out of the seething interior,and then a fleeting eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles here. At about 4.6 billion years old,our sun is nearly halfway through its life. Its present diameter of 870,000 miles will eventually bloat to roughly the Earths orbit,frying us all before shrinking and retiring as a white dwarf,a cinder the size of the Earth. The sun is mostly superheated plasma, gas so energized that electrons are stripped from their atomic nuclei. Thousand mile wide convection bubbles boil across the surface while intense twisting magnetic fields create majestic loops and prominences. The suns coiling magnetic field reverses every twentytwo years, and sunspots, planetsized windows into a marginally cooler inner layer,appear during each half of the cycle below. Periodically,billions of tons of plasma burst forth in titanic coronal mass ejections,roiling clouds some 10 million miles wide that move at up to 5 million miles an hour. Solar weather can disrupt elec tronics, cause power surges, and produce spectacular polar aurora displays around our little world.
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