(This was our 3rd Annual Spanish-Language Lecture)
Turns out the Sun has an atmosphere, albeit very different from Earth’s. Alejandro Núñez, a graduate student at Columbia University, unveiled what is known about this gaseous envelope, layer by layer. He further described how a flotilla of space probes is helping scientists clarify some remaining mysteries by continuously gathering data from all angles and wavelengths. The most vexing of these unsolved questions is how the corona -the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere- can be hundreds of times hotter than the photosphere -its visible surface-, reaching temperatures in excess of a million degrees Celsius. While a detailed description of the heating mechanism still needs to be developed, it seems to be linked to the complex interaction between the Sun’s magnetic field and its atmospheric plasma.
Turns out the Sun is also a star. Thus, we can extrapolate what we learn about the Sun to other stars. As Alejandro explained, we need to do so with caution, for different stars can have diverse levels of magnetic activity. He illustrated this with a discussion on how the red dwarf at the core of the recently discovered multiple planetary system Trappist-1 seems to be much more active than our Sun, and the consequences that this could have for the habitability of the planets orbiting it.
This was the Spanish public lecture of this season, and the audience had the opportunity to stargaze at the Rutherford observatory on Pupin Laboratories’ roof after the talk. The night was cold and partly cloudy, but we managed to get a glimpse of some objects like the Moon and Mizar through some clearings.
-- Jose Zorilla (graduate student)