For as long as we've bothered to care about heavenly bodies other than our own, we've thought that the size of the Sun varies throughout its 11-year solar cycles. Intense magnetic forces, the theory went, rendered it as malleable as a sturdy stress ball. That was a good theory, backed up by decades of data.
It's also totally wrong.
What Jeffrey Kuhn and his team at the University of Hawaii in Pukalani have discovered, in fact, is that the Sun's shape doesn't vary at all. It's rounder than we thought, sure, and flatter -- if you can reconcile those two in your brain -- but it's also terrifically consistent. Ours is one resilient orb.
But the shock isn't just that the Sun's size is stable. It's also that it's distinctly weird. It's not just round, it's too round, based on everything we had assumed about what puts the fire in Apollo's chariot. As Kuhn explained to Space:
"The peculiar fact that the sun is slightly too round to agree with our understanding of its rotation is also an important clue in a longstanding mystery," Kuhn said. "The fact that it is too round means that there are other forces at work making this round shape. We've probably misunderstood how the gas turbulence in the sun works, or how the sun organizes the magnetism that we can only see at the surface. Finding problems in our theories is always more exciting than not, since this is the only way we learn more."
The more we know about the Sun, the more we know about how it affects the Earth.
The most fun part of all of this, though, might be how we finally figured out our mistake. The researchers called on data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has the distinct advantage of being in space. Turns out our stupid earthbound measurements have been distorted by our stupid atmosphere this whole time.
So that's one space misconception solved. Next up: finding that life's on Mars after all. [Space]
Image credit: NASA