Early understanding and etymology
The English proper noun sun developed from Old English sunne (around 725, attested in Beowulf), and may be related to south. Cognates to English sun appear in other Germanic languages, including Old Frisian sunne, sonne ("sun"), Old Saxon sunna, Middle Dutch sonne, modern Dutch zon, Old High German sunna, modern German Sonne, Old Norse sunna, and Gothic sunnō. All Germanic terms for the Sun stem from Proto-Germanic *sunnōn. In Germanic paganism, the Sun is personified as a goddess; Sól/Sunna.
Theories have been proposed that Sun, as Germanic goddess, may represent an extension of an earlier Proto-Indo-European deity due to Indo-European linguistic connections between Old Norse Sól, Sanskrit Surya, Gaulish Sulis, Lithuanian Saulė, and Slavic Solnitse.
Humanity's most fundamental understanding of the Sun is as the luminous disk in the sky, whose presence above the horizon creates day and whose absence causes night. In many prehistoric and ancient cultures, the Sun was thought to be a solar deity or other supernatural phenomenon. Worship of the Sun was central to civilizations such as the Inca of South America and the Aztecs of what is now Mexico. Many ancient monuments were constructed with solar phenomena in mind; for example, stone megaliths accurately mark the summer or winter solstice (some of the most prominent megaliths are located in Nabta Playa, Egypt; Mnajdra, Malta and at Stonehenge, England); Newgrange, a prehistoric human-built mount in Ireland, was designed to detect the winter solstice; the pyramid of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá in Mexico is designed to cast shadows in the shape of serpents climbing the pyramid at the vernal and autumn equinoxes.
In the late Roman Empire the Sun's birthday was a holiday celebrated as Sol Invictus (literally "unconquered sun") soon after the winter solstice which may have been an antecedent to Christmas. Regarding the fixed stars, the Sun appears from Earth to revolve once a year along the ecliptic through the zodiac, and so Greek astronomers considered it to be one of the seven planets (Greek planetes, "wanderer"), after which the seven days of the week are named in some languages.
Development of scientific understanding
In the early first millennium BCE, Babylonian astronomers observed that the Sun's motion along the ecliptic was not uniform, though they were unaware of why this was; it is today known that this is due to the Earth moving in an elliptic orbit around the Sun, with the Earth moving faster when it is nearer to the Sun at perihelion and moving slower when it is farther away at aphelion.
One of the first people to offer a scientific or philosophical explanation for the Sun was the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, who reasoned that it was a giant flaming ball of metal even larger than the Peloponnesus rather than the chariot of Helios, and that the Moon reflected the light of the Sun. For teaching this heresy, he was imprisoned by the authorities and sentenced to death, though he was later released through the intervention of Pericles. Eratosthenes estimated the distance between the Earth and the Sun in the 3rd century BCE as "of stadia myriads 400 and 80000", the translation of which is ambiguous, implying either 4,080,000 stadia (755,000 km) or 804,000,000 stadia (148 to 153 million kilometers or 0.99 to 1.02 AU); the latter value is correct to within a few percent. In the 1st century CE, Ptolemy estimated the distance as 1,210 times the Earth radius, approximately 7.71 million kilometers (0.0515 AU).
The theory that the Sun is the center around which the planets move was first proposed by the ancient Greek Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BCE, and later adopted by Seleucus of Seleucia (see Heliocentrism). This largely philosophical view was developed into fully predictive mathematical model of a heliocentric system in the 16th century by Nicolaus Copernicus. In the early 17th century, the invention of the telescope permitted detailed observations of sunspots by Thomas Harriot, Galileo Galilei and other astronomers. Galileo made some of the first known telescopic observations of sunspots and posited that they were on the surface of the Sun rather than small objects passing between the Earth and the Sun. Sunspots were also observed since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) by Chinese astronomers who maintained records of these observations for centuries. Averroes also provided a description of sunspots in the 12th century.
Arabic astronomical contributions include Albatenius discovering that the direction of the Sun's eccentric is changing, and Ibn Yunus observing more than 10,000 entries for the Sun's position for many years using a large astrolabe.
The transit of Venus was first observed in 1032 by Persian astronomer and polymath Avicenna, who concluded that Venus is closer to the Earth than the Sun, while one of the first observations of the transit of Mercury was conducted by Ibn Bajjah in the 12th century.
In 1672 Giovanni Cassini and Jean Richer determined the distance to Mars and were thereby able to calculate the distance to the Sun. Isaac Newton observed the Sun's light using a prism, and showed that it was made up of light of many colors, while in 1800 William Herschel discovered infrared radiation beyond the red part of the solar spectrum. The 19th century saw advancement in spectroscopic studies of the Sun; Joseph von Fraunhofer recorded more than 600 absorption lines in the spectrum, the strongest of which are still often referred to as Fraunhofer lines.
In the early years of the modern scientific era, the source of the Sun's energy was a significant puzzle. Lord Kelvin suggested that the Sun was a gradually cooling liquid body that was radiating an internal store of heat. Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz then proposed a gravitational contraction mechanism to explain the energy output. Unfortunately the resulting age estimate was only 20 million years, well short of the time span of at least 300 million years suggested by some geological discoveries of that time. In 1890 Joseph Lockyer, who discovered helium in the solar spectrum, proposed a meteoritic hypothesis for the formation and evolution of the Sun.
Not until 1904 was a documented solution offered. Ernest Rutherford suggested that the Sun's output could be maintained by an internal source of heat, and suggested radioactive decay as the source. However, it would be Albert Einstein who would provide the essential clue to the source of the Sun's energy output with his mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Eddington proposed that the pressures and temperatures at the core of the Sun could produce a nuclear fusion reaction that merged hydrogen (protons) into helium nuclei, resulting in a production of energy from the net change in mass. The preponderance of hydrogen in the Sun was confirmed in 1925 by Cecilia Payne. The theoretical concept of fusion was developed in the 1930s by the astrophysicists Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Hans Bethe. Hans Bethe calculated the details of the two main energy-producing nuclear reactions that power the Sun.
Finally, a seminal paper was published in 1957 by Margaret Burbidge, entitled "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars". The paper demonstrated convincingly that most of the elements in the universe had been synthesized by nuclear reactions inside stars, some like our Sun.
Solar space missionsThe first satellites designed to observe the Sun were NASA's Pioneers 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, which were launched between 1959 and 1968. These probes orbited the Sun at a distance similar to that of the Earth, and made the first detailed measurements of the solar wind and the solar magnetic field. Pioneer 9 operated for a particularly long time, transmitting data until May 1983.
In the 1970s, two Helios spacecraft and the Skylab Apollo Telescope Mount provided scientists with significant new data on solar wind and the solar corona. The Helios 1 and 2 probes were U.S.–German collaborations that studied the solar wind from an orbit carrying the spacecraft inside Mercury's orbit at perihelion. The Skylab space station, launched by NASA in 1973, included a solar observatory module called the Apollo Telescope Mount that was operated by astronauts resident on the station. Skylab made the first time-resolved observations of the solar transition region and of ultraviolet emissions from the solar corona. Discoveries included the first observations of coronal mass ejections, then called "coronal transients", and of coronal holes, now known to be intimately associated with the solar wind.
In 1980, the Solar Maximum Mission was launched by NASA. This spacecraft was designed to observe gamma rays, X-rays and UV radiation from solar flares during a time of high solar activity and solar luminosity. Just a few months after launch, however, an electronics failure caused the probe to go into standby mode, and it spent the next three years in this inactive state. In 1984 Space Shuttle Challenger mission STS-41C retrieved the satellite and repaired its electronics before re-releasing it into orbit. The Solar Maximum Mission subsequently acquired thousands of images of the solar corona before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere in June 1989.
Launched in 1991, Japan's Yohkoh (Sunbeam) satellite observed solar flares at X-ray wavelengths. Mission data allowed scientists to identify several different types of flares, and demonstrated that the corona away from regions of peak activity was much more dynamic and active than had previously been supposed. Yohkoh observed an entire solar cycle but went into standby mode when an annular eclipse in 2001 caused it to lose its lock on the Sun. It was destroyed by atmospheric re-entry in 2005.
One of the most important solar missions to date has been the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, jointly built by the European Space Agency and NASA and launched on 2 December 1995. Originally intended to serve a two-year mission, a mission extension through 2012 was approved in October 2009. It has proven so useful that a follow-on mission, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, was launched in February 2010. Situated at the Lagrangian point between the Earth and the Sun (at which the gravitational pull from both is equal), SOHO has provided a constant view of the Sun at many wavelengths since its launch. Besides its direct solar observation, SOHO has enabled the discovery of a large number of comets, mostly tiny sungrazing comets which incinerate as they pass the Sun.
All these satellites have observed the Sun from the plane of the ecliptic, and so have only observed its equatorial regions in detail. The Ulysses probe was launched in 1990 to study the Sun's polar regions. It first travelled to Jupiter, to "slingshot" past the planet into an orbit which would take it far above the plane of the ecliptic. Serendipitously, it was well-placed to observe the collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1994. Once Ulysses was in its scheduled orbit, it began observing the solar wind and magnetic field strength at high solar latitudes, finding that the solar wind from high latitudes was moving at about 750 km/s which was slower than expected, and that there were large magnetic waves emerging from high latitudes which scattered galactic cosmic rays.
Elemental abundances in the photosphere are well known from spectroscopic studies, but the composition of the interior of the Sun is more poorly understood. A solar wind sample return mission, Genesis, was designed to allow astronomers to directly measure the composition of solar material. Genesis returned to Earth in 2004 but was damaged by a crash landing after its parachute failed to deploy on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Despite severe damage, some usable samples have been recovered from the spacecraft's sample return module and are undergoing analysis.The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission was launched in October 2006. Two identical spacecraft were launched into orbits that cause them to (respectively) pull further ahead of and fall gradually behind the Earth. This enables stereoscopic imaging of the Sun and solar phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections.