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updated: 7/26/2011 12:53 PM

Sun's extinction is billions of years away

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  • Traveling some 5 billion years into the future, viewers of the Adler's space show, "Journey to the Stars," witness a startling sight: our own familiar Sun has ballooned into a red giant nearly engulfing Earth.

      Traveling some 5 billion years into the future, viewers of the Adler's space show, "Journey to the Stars," witness a startling sight: our own familiar Sun has ballooned into a red giant nearly engulfing Earth.
    Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History

 

Students in Maria Barba's first-grade at Douglas Macarthur Elementary School in Hoffman Estates asked, "Will the sun be hot enough to blow up Earth?"

Scientists are still trying to figure out if the sun will gobble up Earth when, billions of years into the future, the glowing orb finally nears the end of its life and puffs out to 100 times its size.

The sun is 93 million miles from Earth. Even at that distance, scientists believe the sun could swallow neighboring planets Mercury and Venus when it exhausts its hydrogen fuel and faces its own extinction.

Earth might be too far away to be caught in the sun's fiery expansion, but changes in its atmosphere caused by the sun's intense heat will alter the Earth drastically, making it uninhabitable.

"The sun will never exactly blow up the Earth, but billions of years in the future the sun will expand into a red giant as it runs out of hydrogen fuel and switches over to helium and carbon core burning," said Geza Gyuk, Adler Planetarium director of astronomy.

As you read this article, the sun is vaporizing some of its family of solar system objects. The fierce heat vaporizes and disrupts them, causing their demise. Comets that meet their end in this fashion are called sungrazers.

NASA's SOHO space probe -- the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory -- is inspecting the sun at a distance of 1 million miles from Earth. Launched in 1995, the probe is designed to collect data on the sun's interior and corona and information about solar wind.

While gazing uninterrupted at the sun, SOHO has documented the trajectory of comets in orbits that bring them too close to the sun.

"These so-called sungrazers are mostly fragments of a very large comet, possibly first seen in 371 B.C. by the Greek astronomers Aristotle and Ephorus," Gyuk said. "Many hundreds have been discovered by SOHO."

Gyuk directs readers to see photos of sungrazers on the NASA website, www.nasacom.nasa.gov/gallery/Movies/comets.html.

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