Why does the Sun shine? Why has it been shining for so long?
Our Sun came into being about 4.5 billion years ago as a giant cloud of stellar matter largely comprised of hydrogen: the universe smallest and most common atom, whose nucleus is made of one single proton. This large stellar cloud was gradually compressed by gravity, and reached such high temperatures that large-scale nuclear reactions took place, producing immense amounts of energy. It is the energy released in such nuclear reactions that powers the Sun, and which is released in the form of light and heat.
The principal reaction that takes place in the Sun uses hydrogen as a fuel. The combination of two hydrogen atoms into an atom of deuterium releases about 2 million electronvolts of energy: making these solar reactions several millions of times more energetic than the burning of petrol or coal. In order for this energy to be produced, however, the two hydrogen nuclei need to come into contact at temperatures in excess of one million degrees C.
The formation of a deuterium nucleus from two hydrogen nuclei is the Sun main energy generator, and is a fascinating reaction in its own right. Each hydrogen nucleus consists of one proton, whereas the deuterium nucleus is made up of one proton and one neutron. The process whereby a proton transforms into a neutron relies on the same fundamental phenomenon responsible for beta radioactivity: what scientists know as the ‘weak interaction’
The formation of any star relies heavily on these ‘weak interactions’, which play a crucial role in producing all independent neutrons. In the large stellar clouds that eventually become stars, there are virtually no neutrons to be found outside of atomic nuclei. The deuterium neutrons, therefore, will be indispensable in forming the nuclei of such essential atoms as carbon and oxygen.
Cooking over low heat...
The Sun has been shining for 4.5 billion years, and has enough hydrogen to burn for another 6 billion. It would have collapsed in on itself long ago, however, if the pressure exerted by the emitted rays did not counteract the effect of gravity.
Why has the Sun been shining for so long? The combination of circumstances leading to the fusion of hydrogen is very difficult to achieve. Hydrogen fusion occurs at a slow rate in stars. The proton-proton repulsion, and the comparative weakness of the weak interaction mean that only an infinitesimal fraction of hydrogen collisions are successful. As a result, and fortunately for us, the Sun life cycle is a very long one.
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