Are giant steps what you take, walking on The Sun (apologies to The Police)?
May 16, 2011 10:58 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone tell me, well, ANYTHING about a person (hypothetically) standing on the sun?

A dear friend has just revealed how much he is fascinated by the idea of the impossible, and that he dreams about things like what his life would be like if (perchance) he had a gazillion dollars and could challenge all the scientists and engineers and astronomers in the world--my apologies if I'm omitting a discipline--to find a way for him to stand on the sun.

I think we both understand heat well enough to grasp that a human could never actually stand on the surface of the sun (though I enthusiastically welcome you to correct me if I'm wrong, even/especially in a so-crazy-it-might-work sci-fi way), but honestly, I love it that this is the kind of thing he thinks about, and I'd like to have something/ANYTHING to bring to him on the topic... notwithstanding the fact that I have no idea what that might be.

Has sci-fi lit touched on this concept? Did the ancient Greeks? Did Milton/Keats/Byron/Wilde/Winehouse? Do modern physicists have new insight? Is there some shorthand like "you'd need a protective suit with the power of 100 mega-ke$ha-kajillion Kevlar vests, and even then it would only last you 0.0000001 seconds" or similar rule of thumb? Are there any popular or folk songs about the idea (in English or otherwise)? Did Galileo ever say anything about it? Did Stephen Hawking? Did Charlie Sheen? (I kid). Are there any "Shoot for the moon"-type sayings or stanzas or hip-hop lyrics that apply to the sun? Are there any particularly noteworthy images of such a thing? What is the surface of the sun really like? Anything else?

I know that if there is an answer (or a kajillion), MeFi is the place it will be found; thank you all so much in advance for any thoughts or resources you can contribute to this bizarre and-futile-yet-romantic quest.
posted by argonauta to Science & Nature (44 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I don't believe that there is an actual surface to the sun. Like the gas giants, there's just increasing density of gaseous material that, in the sun's case, is roiling with heat and nuclear reactions. I think it would be more like scuba diving in the upper layers of the sun, except you're in the middle of an explosion that never stops.
posted by fatbird at 11:02 PM on May 16, 2011 [14 favorites]

There isn't any surface to stand on. There is gradually thickening gas which roils constantly.

Think of it as Jupiter except a whole lot hotter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:02 PM on May 16, 2011

There is the sort-of-horror movie Sunshine, which is terrific (although its very last bit is silly IMO). It's about a manned mission to the sun.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thank you for reminding me of the existence of Smash Mouth. You monster.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:12 PM on May 16, 2011 [13 favorites]

I don't know if this will really work.

The sun is a mass of incandescent gas -- a gigantic nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees. The sun is hot. The sun is not a place where you could live. [data source]
posted by salvia at 11:18 PM on May 16, 2011 [24 favorites]

From recall, the sun's usrface is about 5000K.

Apart from magnetic plasma field thingys, I don't believe there's anything that we're aware of that can contain that sort of heat.

So if you could somehow get a super special magnetic field that was outside your vessel maybe you could keep alive?

Of course, you'd then start to sink towards the middle of the sun, where it's substantially hotter.
posted by wilful at 11:31 PM on May 16, 2011

I thought of the film "Sunshine" too. When they open the window of the viewing deck, good stuff. Out of interest the core temp is 16 million K the surface temp 'only' 5800 K
posted by gallagho at 11:31 PM on May 16, 2011

Well, okay, you definitely can't stand on a ball of plasma. But what about Ray Bradbury's classic story, "The Golden Apples of the Sun"? Is there any way you could go to the Sun, grab a wad of plasma, and scoot away with it? (And would what you end up with be just some cooling hydrogen and, you know, radiation poisoning?)
posted by gingerest at 11:34 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sun is a mass of incandescent gas

The sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma (Full Lyrics)
posted by missmagenta at 11:36 PM on May 16, 2011 [10 favorites]

I think the closest you could get would be to float in a sort of boat or sun-blimp in the sun's upper layers (it'd have to be made out of some SFnal magic material, or magnetic fields, or something). Or rocket boots.

The photosphere (the visual surface of the sun) is still a really rarefied gas by our standards: 2×10−4 kg/m3, compared to Earth-surface air at 1.2 kg/m3. You'd have to go much deeper to find gas dense enough to support even a blimp, let alone to stand on.
posted by hattifattener at 11:59 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Stephen Baxter's Flux
Dura and her fellow human beings live inside a neutron star, as they have for generations. As long as they can remember, "glitches" (instabilities of the magnetic field inside the star caused by changes in the star's rotation) have happened from time to time. As the novel starts, the worst glitch that anyone can remember threatens to destroy her home. To survive, Dura must travel to a far off city, and eventually outside of the star itself.
A nice SF take on life not on the surface, but just inside of a star.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:01 AM on May 17, 2011

this is a really sweet thing. i can't recall anything from literature or popular culture right now (i'm going to be thinking of this through the week), and this is kind of weak but: some songs that reference "standing on the sun."

this book sounds like it might be a dreamy surprise present. Touch the Sun is a universally designed book with colorful raised images and combined text in print and Braille that explores the dynamic nature of our Sun.
posted by ilk at 1:04 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

David Brin's Sundiver concerns an expedition to the Sun and an encounter with creatures that live in the chromosphere.
posted by zanni at 1:28 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the short stories - the eponymous one - included in The Golden Apples of the Sun deals with that idea.
posted by nicolin at 2:02 AM on May 17, 2011

18th/19th-Century astonomer William Herschel believed the sun to be inhabited. According to the wikipedia article on Herschel "he believed that the Sun had a cool, solid surface protected from its hot atmosphere by an opaque layer of cloud, and that a race of beings adapted to their strange environment lived there and had enormous heads. He believed the creatures' heads must be exceptionally large because his calculations showed that under those conditions a normal sized head would effectively explode."
posted by misteraitch at 2:14 AM on May 17, 2011

Has sci-fi lit touched on this concept?

In Terry Pratchett's Dark Side of the Sun, the high-temperature Creapii can swim on the surfaces of cool stars. That's just a throwaway remark within the book, though.

I'm sure there was a 2000AD (UK comic) story about holiday camps on the sun. The only thing I remember is a blacked-out room where people would go to get fashionably pale. Early 80s Future Shock, maybe?

How to do it... surface temperature is approx 5500degC, and gravity is approx 28g. Melting point of diamond is only 3550degC... I don't think it's an achievable goal without magic force fields. Might be easier to cheat, by bringing a bit of the sun to you. Capture material that's being ejected.
posted by Leon at 2:36 AM on May 17, 2011


Gravity would mess things up considerably. Even if you could manage to insulate him from the radiation, there'd still be the matter of extricating a ~100kg man from a 1,989,100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000kg star. It would take some work.

Also: Magnetism.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:01 AM on May 17, 2011

Seconding the recommendation for the Future Shocks story Leon remembered. It's by Alan Moore and is available in Complete Future Shocks (maybe in other collections too but that's the one we have). It features a hapless criminal trying to run from the police in a resort on the Sun, giving the reader a nice tour of its delights before his inevitable demise.
posted by daisyk at 3:18 AM on May 17, 2011

Cyrano de Bergerac wrote a book about it (States and Empires of the Sun). So did Michael Frayn (A Landing on the Sun), but his was metaphorical.
posted by Segundus at 3:22 AM on May 17, 2011

In the late '70s, Murray Langston as the Unknown Comic did an impression of the first man to land on the sun. It involved him leaping from foot to foot yelling "Ow! Ow! Ow!"
posted by Devoidoid at 3:29 AM on May 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Even if the "surface" of the sun is only about 5800K, the corona is about 1 million K. So you'd have to get through that first.

I'm pretty sure we haven't discovered an element that can sustain that kind of temperature without dissolving into plasma, which suggests that if such a thing is going to be possible, you're going to need energy fields of some sort, which kind of negates the "standing" part.
posted by valkyryn at 4:03 AM on May 17, 2011

I remember Sundiver being a pretty interesting and trippy trip to the surface of the sun, but it's a while since I read it
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:27 AM on May 17, 2011

"Even if the "surface" of the sun is only about 5800K, the corona is about 1 million K. So you'd have to get through that first. "
There's a lot more to cooking things than merely temperature. The gas in a cluster of galaxies is tens to hundreds of times hotter than the solar corona but you won't exactly get cooked there either.
posted by edd at 5:09 AM on May 17, 2011

The important question, aside from all the science of it, is what would one DO and SEE. Ask your friend to consider that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:13 AM on May 17, 2011

Came to recommend David Brin's Sundiver, but it's already been done; the whole Uplift series is a good read.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:07 AM on May 17, 2011

He could kiss the data stored on his flash drive goodbye.

Correcting for all the other practicalities, and imagining that there really was a surface that he could float upon, I would imagine the weirdest thing would be that the horizon would be *really* far away.
posted by gjc at 6:15 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Setting aside the issues of annihilative heat, wrenching, crackling electromagnetism, and a gravitational field you could never escape, you could no more "stand" on the sun as you could "stand" on a cloud.

Standing implies a solid surface on which one stands. The sun has no such thing.
posted by General Tonic at 6:30 AM on May 17, 2011

There was some pretty cool stuff re the surface of the sun in National Geographic's Journey To The Edge Of The Universe.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:30 AM on May 17, 2011

John C Wright's The Phoenix Exultant trilogy (which is really great) has the enormous starship diving into the sun's interior. The protagonist Phaethon (full name Phaethon Prime Rhadamanth Humodified (augment) Uncomposed, Indepconciousness, Base Neuroformed, Silver-Gray Manorial Schola, Era 7043), has armor made out of transuranic elements that have atomic numbers in the thousands, that can withstand the heat in the center of the sun.

If you have trillions of dollars, all you have to do is use the money to invent this fictional technology.
posted by rainy at 7:48 AM on May 17, 2011

I also recommend listening to Pink Floyd's "Set the controls for the heart of the sun" as he makes the trip, if he's ever able to.
posted by rainy at 7:51 AM on May 17, 2011

In the graphic novel (and perhaps the film, I dont recall) Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan casually drops that he's walked on the surface of the sun. I think you'd need to be a near-divine being to accomplish that.
posted by elendil71 at 10:33 AM on May 17, 2011

Further down the chamber Ford Prefect had found something of which he very much liked the look, several such things in fact.
"Zaphod," he said in a quiet voice, "just look at some of these little star trolleys ..."
Zaphod looked and liked.
They had found a ship with a heat-sink.
posted by BeerFilter at 11:21 AM on May 17, 2011

I remember reading somewhere that the amount of heat produced by solar matter isn't that much, per cubic meter. It's just that there's so darn many cubic meters that it adds up. I recently tried to track down this fact, but my google-fu is insufficient. Has anyone here ever heard such a thing, or am I mis-remembering badly?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:45 AM on May 17, 2011

No, it's true. A person generates more energy per kilogram than the Sun.
posted by edd at 12:43 PM on May 17, 2011

Relevant calculations: A person consumes about 2000 kilocalories a day, and is about 100kg. Using GNU units - doing the maths this is about 1W/kg. The Sun produces something like 2x10-4W/kg - a lot less (you can more easily look up the output in W and the mass in kg).

Of course the Sun has 3.2x1011 kg/m2 of surface area whereas for a spherical horse human it'd be more like 100kg/m2, which is why the Sun gets more than a bit hotter.
posted by edd at 1:00 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

So the sun is hot because mass grows as radius^3, while surface area goes as radius^2? If we took the mass of the sun and turned it into a spherical shell about as thick as the Earth's diameter, it would be less hot? [Admittedly, it would be a HUGE spherical shell.] Crazy.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:53 PM on May 17, 2011

I found a great table [pdf warning] (from this lecture at Portland Community College) that's full of interesting data on how the sun's density and temperature vary as you plunge into its burning heart.

/obligatory joke about Solar Research being a purely theoretical subject in Portland
posted by benito.strauss at 1:59 PM on May 17, 2011

benito.strauss: That's a complicated question as the heat generation only happens in a relatively small volume at the core, and the physics of it is very sensitive to temperature and probably density. What it is fair to say is that if you turned off the nuclear power generation a much smaller star takes longer to cool down - this is why white dwarfs stay hot despite not generating further heat, and indeed it takes them so long to cool down that their cold counterparts (black dwarfs) don't exist, as the universe is not yet old enough.
posted by edd at 2:24 PM on May 17, 2011

... or, rereading did you mean a spherical shell as thick as the Earth but a sphere still the same size as the Sun? In which case it radiates heat at a given temperature at the same rate - only the radiation going off the outer surface matters, as the hole in the middle just fills up with radiation that can't otherwise escape - the same as inside a star anyway, just without plasma to scatter it. (Same caveats to screwing up nuclear fusion apply)
posted by edd at 2:26 PM on May 17, 2011

(Thanks for answering my off-the-wall questions, edd. I'm obviously asking simplistic what-ifs that ignore a lot of important issues.)

I didn't know that the heat generation doesn't happen uniformly throughout the mass of the sun. Does that computation about the W/kg just concern the fusing core, or does it average over the whole solar mass? I've got an image of an intensely burning marble-sized piece of sodium in the middle of a room filled with cotton balls. Not a lot of average energy per/cm^3, or even per gram, but what is burning is very hot.

In response to your answers, I was ignoring how heat generation would be affected by smooshing the sun's mass into a different shape. I was trying to sharpen my idea that, say, each square-cm on the surface of the sun is so hot because there is huge amount of mass "behind" it when you consider the solid angle it subtends.

I'm going off to read more about white dwarfs!
posted by benito.strauss at 3:22 PM on May 17, 2011

Yeah, the Sun only generates heat right at its core. It pretty much all happens within the central 25% of radius (which is therefore only a couple of percent of the volume). Wikipedia gives the scary numbers, complete with extreme temperature.
posted by edd at 3:40 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

And the radiation takes about a million years to get to the surface. The sunlight we see was generated 6 minutes + about a million years ago.
posted by rainy at 4:32 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not the "surface," but travel in the stellar interior is discussed in Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made."
posted by eritain at 10:58 PM on May 17, 2011

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