The Earth has a definite boundary between rocky/ watery surface and gaseous atmosphere. The same cannot be said of the sun. Even though the photosphere gives an apparent "edge" to the sun via the human eye, the matter of the sun continues on significantly further. I have even heard a claim that from a certain perspective, all of the planets out to the KBOs are orbiting "inside" of the sun.

My question concerns what happens when we graph the density of the sun versus distance from the center. I suspect the result will resemble exponential decay; is this correct? Does the graph have any unusual characteristics (such as a lack of smoothness) at any point along the distance axis, in particular at the photosphere?

  • $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia article on the Sun (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_sun) discusses the density variation with radial distance and the transitions between the different regions of the Sun. If this article isn't adequate pehaps you could edit your question to make it more specific. $\endgroup$ Jul 19 '12 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @John: The wikipedia article does address a part of my question, thank you. And I hadn't known about the Shock Front previously, which is very interesting. However, it does not get to my specific point, whether anything special goes on at the photosphere. $\endgroup$
    – cobaltduck
    Jul 20 '12 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I know nothing special happens at the edge of the photosphere except for the H$^-$ ion concentration falling to the level where it stops absorbing light. $\endgroup$ Jul 20 '12 at 14:18

The "edge" of the sun that we see (the photosphere) arises not so much from any feature in its density profile, but from the properties of how light travels through the sun as the density drops.

The photosphere is the point where the density drops enough that photons can begin to free stream away without interacting any more with the gas. Formally, this is the point where the optical depth of rays directed inward toward the sun's center equals 1. This can be interpreted to mean that the photosphere provides the average "surface of last interaction" for the photons we see.

The density profile continues to drop smoothly before and after the photosphere. The variation of density with radius can be well-approximated by a power-law near the surface of the sun, and can be roughly derived by finding solutions to the Lane-Emden equation (basically just a combination of the condition for hydrostatic equilibrium and Poisson's equation for the strength of gravity).


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