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NOVA: Secrets Of The Sun

Airs Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TVCANCELLED

Above: Graphic showing the Sun's rotation. Unlike the Earth, the Sun rotates at different speeds. It turns faster at the equator than at the poles, so a ‘day’ at the equator is shorter than a day near the poles. It also spins at different speeds under its brilliant surface.

Our Sun may appear quiet to us, but it can erupt gigantic storms in the form of brilliant flares (seen here) and powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs for short), which can hit us like a cosmic tsunami, overloading the power grid and damaging delicate satellites in orbit above the Earth.
Enlarge this image

Above: Our Sun may appear quiet to us, but it can erupt gigantic storms in the form of brilliant flares (seen here) and powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs for short), which can hit us like a cosmic tsunami, overloading the power grid and damaging delicate satellites in orbit above the Earth.

Graphic of the 1859 solar storm. The Earth’s invisible magnetic field which cocoons us offers some projection against what the Sun occasionally throws in our direction. But recent evidence suggests that the great solar storm of 1859 delivered such a powerful blow that the Earth’s Magnetic field all but collapsed and a powerful electric surge in the atmosphere pulsed across the globe.
Enlarge this image

Above: Graphic of the 1859 solar storm. The Earth’s invisible magnetic field which cocoons us offers some projection against what the Sun occasionally throws in our direction. But recent evidence suggests that the great solar storm of 1859 delivered such a powerful blow that the Earth’s Magnetic field all but collapsed and a powerful electric surge in the atmosphere pulsed across the globe.

It contains 99.9 percent of all the matter in our solar system and sheds hot plasma at nearly a million miles an hour. The temperature at its core is a staggering 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. It convulses, it blazes, it sings. You know it as the sun. Scientists know it as one of the most amazing physics laboratories in the universe.

Now, with the help of new spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, scientists are seeing the sun as they never have before and even re-creating in labs what happens at the very center of the sun. Their work will helps us understand aspects of the sun that have puzzled scientists for decades.

But more critically, it may help us predict and track solar storms that have the power to zap our power grid, shut down telecommunications and ground global air travel for days, weeks, even longer.

Such storms have occurred before — but never in the modern era of satellite communication. "Secrets Of The Sun" reveals a bright new dawn in our understanding of our nearest star — one that might help keep our planet from going dark.

This program originally aired in 2012.

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Video

Preview: NOVA: Secrets Of The Sun

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Above: "Secrets of the Sun" reveals a bright new dawn in our understanding of our nearest star — one that might help keep our planet from going dark.