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Theoretical problems of The Sun

Solar neutrino problem

For many years the number of solar electron neutrinos detected on Earth was 13 to 12 of the number predicted by the standard solar model. This anomalous result was termed the solar neutrino problem. Theories proposed to resolve the problem either tried to reduce the temperature of the Sun's interior to explain the lower neutrino flux, or posited that electron neutrinos could oscillate—that is, change into undetectable tau and muon neutrinos as they traveled between the Sun and the Earth. Several neutrino observatories were built in the 1980s to measure the solar neutrino flux as accurately as possible, including the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and Kamiokande. Results from these observatories eventually led to the discovery that neutrinos have a very small rest mass and do indeed oscillate. Moreover, in 2001 the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was able to detect all three types of neutrinos directly, and found that the Sun's total neutrino emission rate agreed with the Standard Solar Model, although depending on the neutrino energy as few as one-third of the neutrinos seen at Earth are of the electron type. This proportion agrees with that predicted by the Mikheyev-Smirnov-Wolfenstein effect (also known as the matter effect), which describes neutrino oscillation in matter, and it is now considered a solved problem.

Coronal heating problem

The optical surface of the Sun (the photosphere) is known to have a temperature of approximately 6,000 K. Above it lies the solar corona, rising to a temperature of 1,000,000–2,000,000 K. The high temperature of the corona shows that it is heated by something other than direct heat conduction from the photosphere.

It is thought that the energy necessary to heat the corona is provided by turbulent motion in the convection zone below the photosphere, and two main mechanisms have been proposed to explain coronal heating. The first is wave heating, in which sound, gravitational or magnetohydrodynamic waves are produced by turbulence in the convection zone. These waves travel upward and dissipate in the corona, depositing their energy in the ambient gas in the form of heat. The other is magnetic heating, in which magnetic energy is continuously built up by photospheric motion and released through magnetic reconnection in the form of large solar flares and myriad similar but smaller events—nanoflares.

Currently, it is unclear whether waves are an efficient heating mechanism. All waves except Alfvén waves have been found to dissipate or refract before reaching the corona. In addition, Alfvén waves do not easily dissipate in the corona. Current research focus has therefore shifted towards flare heating mechanisms.

Faint young Sun problem

Theoretical models of the Sun's development suggest that 3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago, during the Archean period, the Sun was only about 75% as bright as it is today. Such a weak star would not have been able to sustain liquid water on the Earth's surface, and thus life should not have been able to develop. However, the geological record demonstrates that the Earth has remained at a fairly constant temperature throughout its history, and that the young Earth was somewhat warmer than it is today. The consensus among scientists is that the young Earth's atmosphere contained much larger quantities of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and/or ammonia) than are present today, which trapped enough heat to compensate for the smaller amount of solar energy reaching the planet.

Present anomalies

The Sun is currently behaving unexpectedly in a number of ways.

  • It is in the midst of an unusual sunspot minimum, lasting far longer and with a higher percentage of spotless days than normal; since May 2008.
  • It is measurably dimming; its output has dropped 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at EUV wavelengths in comparison with the levels at the last solar minimum.
  • Over the last two decades, the solar wind's speed has dropped by 3%, its temperature by 13%, and its density by 20%.
  • Its magnetic field is at less than half strength compared to the minimum of 22 years ago. The entire heliosphere, which fills the Solar System, has shrunk as a result, resulting in an increase in the level of cosmic radiation striking the Earth and its atmosphere.