History Of Solar Observations

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The existence of features on the Sun was known from the records of sunspots observed by ancient astronomers with the naked eye. However, no systematic studies were made of such features until the telescope was invented in the early 17th century. The Italian scientist Galileo and the German mathematician Christoph Scheiner were among the first to make telescopic observations of sunspots. Scheiner's drawings in the Rosa Ursina are of almost modern quality, and there was little improvement in solar imaging until 1905. In the 1670s the British astronomer John Flamsteed and the French astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini calculated the distance to the Sun; using data from observations of the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769, scientists were able to determine the distance between the Sun and Earth more precisely—their estimations were quite close to modern values. Newton set forth the role of the Sun as the centre of attraction of the known planetary system.

While the quality of observations was good, consistent observation was lacking.

The sunspot cycle, a huge effect, was not discovered until 1843 by Heinrich Schwabe. The German amateur astronomer was looking for a planet inside the orbit of Mercury and made careful daily drawings to track its passage across the face of the Sun. Instead he found that the number of sunspots varied with a regular period. The Swiss astronomer Rudolf Wolf confirmed Schwabe's discovery by searching through previous reports of sunspots and established the period as 11 years. Wolf also introduced what is termed the Zurich relative sunspot number, a value equal to the sum of the spots plus 10 times the number of groups, which is still used today.

Much of the work at this time was carried out by wealthy amateurs such as Richard Christopher Carrington of Britain, who built a private observatory and discovered the differential rotation and the equatorward drift of activity during a sunspot cycle. He also was the first (with another Englishman, Richard Hodgson) to observe a solar flare. Photographic monitoring began in 1860, and soon spectroscopy was applied to the Sun, so the elements present and their physical state could begin to be investigated. In the early part of the 19th century, Fraunhofer mapped the solar spectrum. At the end of the 19th century, spectros-copy carried out during eclipses revealed the character of the atmosphere, but the million-degree coronal temperature was not established until 1940 by the German astrophysicist Walter Grotrian.

In 1891, while he was a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., George Ellery Hale invented the spectroheliograph, which can be used to take pictures of the Sun in any single wavelength. After using the instrument on the great Yerkes refractor in Williams Bay, Wis., U.S. (which he built), Hale developed the Mount Wilson Observatory in California and built the first solar tower telescopes there. Prior to the construction of the Mount Wilson facility, all solar observatories were located in cloudy places, and long-term studies were not possible. Hale discovered the magnetic fields of sunspots by observing the splitting of their spectral lines into a number of components; this splitting, known as the Zeeman effect, occurs in the presence of a strong magnetic field. By continuously studying the spots for two cycles, he discovered, with the American astronomer Seth Barnes Nicholson, the law of sunspot polarities. Later, in 1953, the American father-and-son team of astronomers Harold and Horace Babcock, working with the same instruments, developed the magnetograph, with which the polar field was detected. In the 1930s the French astronomer Bernard Lyot introduced the coronagraph, which made possible spectral observations of the corona when the Sun is not in eclipse, and the birefringent filter, which permitted two-dimensional monochromatic images. With the Lyot filter, cinematography of the solar activity of magnetic and velocity fields became a reality. In the 1960s the American astronomer Robert Leighton modified Hale's spectroheliograph so that it could measure both velocities and magnetic fields and with it discovered solar oscillations.

After 1950, new observatories were established in areas that were less cloudy. By 1960 astronomers realized that these sites not only had to be clear but that they also had to have stable air. By locating observatories near lakes and by employing electronic imaging and vacuum telescopes, astronomers were able to make new, higher-resolution observations. In 1969 the movement began with the Aerospace Corporation Observatory (now the San Fernando Observatory) and the Big Bear Solar Observatory, both in California. Free of ground effects, these observatories achieved a new level of stable images and were soon followed by lake-sited solar observatories in India and China.

An entirely new dimension of solar studies was initiated by the space age. With one or two exceptions, all of the important spectral lines from the chromosphere and corona are in the ultraviolet, and since the photosphere is relatively weak in the ultraviolet, it is easy to disentangle the images of the upper layer from the powerful visible radiation of the photosphere. Moreover, satellites sampling the solar particles have the ability to monitor directly solar waves and particles that do not reach the ground. However, the task is not easy. Ultraviolet optics demanded special coatings and films (now charge-coupled devices) for observing. Special solar trackers were required to keep the image steady, and good telemetry was needed for the large data flow. For the corona, special coronagraphs were developed, with a series of occulting disks in front of an ultraclean lens. For X-rays, a high rate of photon detections per unit time was required to avoid early problems with pulse pile-up. The development of instruments to study the Sun also benefited the creation of satellites that explored beyond the solar system.

The U.S. Orbiting Solar Observatory series of satellites (OSO 1-8, launched from 1962 to 1975) made the first observations of X-rays and gamma-rays from solar flares. They also were the first to observe gamma-rays emitted from nuclear reactions in flares and to use an externally occulted coronagraph to view coronal mass ejections. A huge advance in resolution came with Skylab, a manned U.S. space station that used leftover hardware from the Apollo project. Skylab produced the first high-resolution images in the ultraviolet lines as well as the first X-ray images of the corona. The Skylab images displayed the coronal holes for the first time, and the timing of their disk passage showed their role as a source of high-speed solar wind streams and geomagnetic disturbances.

The next important spacecraft was the U.S. Solar Maximum Mission (SMM), launched in 1980. New technological developments permitted greatly improved data, particularly on the solar-cycle dependence of the solar constant. Hard X-ray data could be obtained without saturation. In 1981 SMM's attitude control system malfunctioned, and the SMM mission was suspended until 1984 when it was repaired by the space shuttle Challenger.

Japan launched two very successful satellites, Hinotori and Yohkoh, in 1981 and 1991, respectively. Hinotori obtained the first measurements of a superthermal (30 million-40 million K) cloud produced by solar flares, which is the source of the soft X-ray burst accompanying all solar flares. Yohkoh produced continuous images of the corona in soft X-rays, detected and located hard X-ray bursts, and produced important soft X-ray spectra.

There are several satellites actively observing the Sun. The U.S. satellites

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE), launched in 1995 and 1998, respectively, have produced many important results. SOHO can observe the Sun continuously, and, among its many discoveries, it has found that sunspots are shallow and that the solar wind flows outward by waves in vibrating magnetic field lines. TRACE is a powerful tool for exploring the chromosphere-corona interface and has found that much of the heating in the corona takes place at its base. The European Space Agency spacecraft Ulysses, launched in 1990, is in a polar orbit around the Sun and has discovered that the solar wind speed does not increase continuously toward the poles but rather levels off at high latitudes at 750 km/sec (450 miles/sec).


Mercury is the innermost planet of the solar system and the eighth in size and mass. Its closeness to the Sun and its smallness make it the most elusive of the planets visible to the unaided eye. Because its rising or setting is always within about two hours of the Sun's, it is never observable when the sky is fully dark. Mercury is designated by the symbol 5.

The difficulty in seeing it notwithstanding, Mercury was known at least by Sumerian times, some 5,000 years ago. In classical Greece it was called Apollo when it appeared as a morning star just before sunrise and Hermes, the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mercury, when it appeared as an evening star just after sunset. Hermes was the swift messenger of the gods, and the planet's name is thus likely a reference to its rapid motions relative to other objects in the sky. Even in more recent eras, many sky observers passed their entire lifetimes without ever seeing Mercury. It is reputed that Nicolaus Copernicus, whose heliocentric model of the heavens in the 16th century explained why Mercury and Venus always appear in close proximity to the Sun, expressed a deathbed regret that he had never set eyes on the planet Mercury himself.

Until the last part of the 20th century, Mercury was one of the least understood planets, and even now the shortage of information about it leaves many basic questions

Mercury as seen by the Messenger probe, Jan. 14, 2008. This image shows half of the hemisphere missed by Mariner 10 in 1974-75 and was snapped by Messenger's wide angle camera when it was about 27,000 km (17,000 miles) from the planet. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury as seen by the Messenger probe, Jan. 14, 2008. This image shows half of the hemisphere missed by Mariner 10 in 1974-75 and was snapped by Messenger's wide angle camera when it was about 27,000 km (17,000 miles) from the planet. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington unsettled. Indeed, the length of its day was not determined until the 1960s, and, even after the flybys of the Mariner 10 and Messenger (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and

Ranging) probes, the appearance of much of its surface is still unknown. At first glance the hemisphere of the planet that has been imaged looks similar to the cra-tered terrain of the Moon, an impression

Two mosaic views of Mercury, each showing about half of the hemisphere of the planet that was illuminated when Mariner 10 made its first flyby in March 1974. In both views, the landscape is dominated by large impact basins and craters with extensive intercrater plains. NASA/JPL

reinforced by the roughly comparable size of the two bodies. Mercury is far denser, however, having a metallic core that takes up about 42 percent of its volume (compared with 4 percent for the Moon and 16 percent for Earth). Moreover, its surface shows significant differences from lunar terrain, including a lack of the massive dark-coloured lava flows known as maria on the Moon and the presence of buckles and scarps that suggest Mercury actually shrank during some period in its history.

Mercury's nearness to the Sun has given scientists bound to Earth many observational hurdles, which are now being overcome by spacecraft missions— such as that of Messenger, which was


mean distance from Sun

57,910,000 km (0.4 AU)

eccentricity of orbit


inclination of orbit to ecliptic


Mercurian year (sidereal period of revolution)

87.9694 Earth days

maximum visual magnitude


mean synodic period*

116 Earth days

mean orbital velocity

47.9 km/sec

radius (equatorial and polar)

2,439.7 km

surface area

74,800,000 km2


3.30 x 1023 kg

mean density

5.43 g/cm3

mean surface gravity

370 cm/sec2

escape velocity

4.3 km/sec

rotation period (Mercurian sidereal day)

58.6462 Earth days

Mercurian mean solar day

175.9 Earth days

inclination of equator to orbit

less than 3°; probably nearly zero

magnetic field strength

0.003 gauss

mean surface temperature

440 K (332 °F, 167 °C)

surface temperature extremes

700 K (800 °F, 430 °C) to 90 K

(-300 °F, -180 °C)

typical surface pressure

about 10-15 bar

number of known moons


*Time required for the planet to return to the same position in the sky relative to the Sun as seen from Earth.

launched in 2004, flew past the planet twice in 2008, and is scheduled to fly past it again in 2009 before settling into orbit in 2011. The same characteristic has also been exploited to confirm predictions made by relativity theory about the way gravity affects space and time.

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