Brief History: The Sun

  • Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

    London Residents gaze at a solar eclipse on June 30, 1954

    It guides our calendars, nourishes our crops and provides us with light and warmth. Sometimes we have even mistaken it for a god. Nothing has commanded our attention so completely as the sun. And yet for all our thousands of years of study and worship, there is still relatively little known about the 4.6 billion-year-old ball of gas. We seem to have gotten one step closer, though. On Feb. 6, NASA released the first 360-degree image of the star.

    The earliest recorded observations of the sun date back to Chinese astronomers in 2300 B.C. A thousand years later, the Egyptians invented the sundial. For many centuries after that, it was believed that the earth was at the center of everything. It was only in 1543 that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus theorized that the earth revolves around the sun. "Who would place this lamp in another or better position," he reasoned, "than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time?" In 1610, Galileo Galilei used the newly invented telescope to confirm this theory as well as the existence of sunspots--cooler, dark patches on the sun's surface.

    By the 1870s, scientists began to realize the myriad effects that solar activity could have on our planet. (Flares and sunspots are connected to magnetic storms on earth.) But we still believed our solar system to be at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. We know now that it's actually located many light-years off to the side. And after we spent millennia being touched by the sun, the space age allowed us to try to touch it back. Ulysses, the first spacecraft to travel in polar orbit around the star, launched in 1990 and stayed active for almost 20 years. Such a life span is but a flicker to the sun. It was here yesterday. It will be here tomorrow. It will continue to blaze bright long after we have gone dim.