When we draw the sun, we draw it yellow. When it shines into our eyes, it seems brilliantly white. But as you probably know, the sun’s light is not just white; it’s a real canvas of colors! Researchers at the McMath-Pierce Solar Observatory recently captured this canvas in a jaw-dropping image I couldn’t stop staring at. It shows the colors of the sun’s spectrum, revealing some details about the bright nearby star. But the image itself is as fascinating as the information it conveys, so let me tell you what it is that you’re looking at here.
[Related reading: Photographer captures all of the sun’s colors in this mesmerizing composite]
Let’s start with the method. The image was created by passing the Sun’s light through a prism-like device. It broke down the light into its various colors, creating something called a spectrum. This is basically what you see when there’s a rainbow. For my fellow Pink Floyd fans: yes, it reminded me of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover, too! And I think it’s also cool that this photo was released during the Pride month.
When the Observatory team created this spectrum, they found that despite appearing white to our eyes, the Sun is actually the brightest in yellow-green light. But you also notice some dark patches. These aren’t glitches or errors; they’re called absorption lines, and they’re essential clues about what’s happening on and around the Sun. These patches show where the sunlight is being soaked up or absorbed by different gases floating above the Sun’s surface.
These dark patches give scientists a whole lot of insight: different gases absorb different colors of light. This means that an image like this gives them a way to figure out what types of gases make up the Sun. A real-world example is helium, which was first found in a solar spectrum way back in 1868, and only after that we found it here on Earth.
Most of these absorption lines have been identified. However, the Sun still keeps a few secrets. There are a couple of unidentified lines, so we still have lots to learn about the star that gives us light, the essence of life, and, well, photography!