A Moment of Science

Water on the Sun

If you could travel to the sun, which of the following things would you find there?
A) Oxygen
B) Hydrogen
C) Water
D) All of the above

OK, pencils down. If you chose D, congratulations! Like all stars, the sun contains every known element, including oxygen and hydrogen. In some places the sun’s oxygen and hydrogen even combine to form H2O, or water.

Now, as you know, the sun is really hot. How hot? Really, really, really hot! So hot, in fact, that nearly all its atoms, including oxygen and hydrogen, float around without attaching to each other to form molecules.

However, some parts of the sun are hotter than others. Sunspots, for example, those large, dark splotches on the sun’s surface, are relatively cool. What makes sunspots less hot than other parts of the sun are their incredibly strong magnetic fields. The strong magnetic affect pushes most of the sun’s gas aside, creating a slightly less hot space in the middle of the spot. There, things are just cool enough for the remaining atoms, including oxygen and hydrogen, to momentarily bond.

This doesn’t mean that there are liquid oceans on the sun, of course. It’s still too hot for that. In fact, it’s still so hot that if you could throw a hunk of iron into the center of a sunspot, it would immediately vaporize. So no one water molecule lasts for very long. Sunspots do contain trace amounts of H2O in vapor form, and that’s still water on the sun!

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