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Atmosphere of the Sun: Photosphere, Chromosphere & Corona

The atmosphere of the sun is composed of several layers, mainly the photosphere, the chromosphere and the corona. It's in these outer layers that the sun's energy, which has bubbled up from the sun's interior layers, is detected as sunlight.

The lowest layer of the sun's atmosphere is the photosphere. It is about 300 miles (500 kilometers) thick. This layer is where the sun's energy is released as light. Because of the distance from the sun to Earth, light reaches our planet in about eight minutes.

Solar corona taken by SECCHI outer chronograph on STEREO spacecraft.
Image of the solar corona, taken by the SECCHI outer coronagraph (COR2) on the STEREO Ahead observatory on June 8, 2010 at 01:09:35 UT. Click to enlarge.
Credit: NASA/STEREO

The photosphere is marked by bright, bubbling granules of plasma and darker, cooler sunspots, which emerge when the sun's magnetic field breaks through the surface. Sunspots appear to move across the sun's disk. Observing this motion led astronomers to realize that the sun rotates on its axis. Since the sun is a ball of gas with no solid form, different regions rotate at different rates. The sun's equatorial regions rotate in about 24 days, while the polar regions take more than 30 days to make a complete rotation.

The photosphere is also the source of solar flares: tongues of fire that extend hundreds of thousands of miles above the sun's surface. Solar flares produce bursts of X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, electromagnetic radiation and radio waves. [Space Weather: Sunspots, Solar Flares & Coronal Mass Ejections]

The next layer is the chromosphere. The chromosphere emits a reddish glow as super-heated hydrogen burns off. But the red rim can only be seen during a total solar eclipse. At other times, light from the chromosphere is usually too weak to be seen against the brighter photosphere.

The third layer of the sun's atmosphere is the corona. It can only be seen during a total solar eclipse as well. It appears as white streamers or plumes of ionized gas that flow outward into space. Temperatures in the sun's corona can get as high as 3.5 million degrees F (2 million degrees C). As the gases cool, they become the solar wind.

— Tim Sharp, Reference Editor

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Tim Sharp, Reference Editor

Tim Sharp

Tim writes and edits reference material for Space.com and other Purch websites. Previously, he was a Technology Editor at nytimes.com and the Online Editor at the Des Moines Register, where he led the newspaper's online news operation. He was also a copy editor at several newspapers. Before joining Purch, Tim was an editor at the Hazelden Foundation. He has a journalism degree from the University of Kansas. Follow Tim on .
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