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Listening to the Sun

January 1996

Solar physicists are putting a stethoscope up to the Sun and hoping to hear a cough. If they are successful, their results will answer long-standing questions about what is going on inside.

The NSF-funded, $20 million Global Oscillation Network Group, or GONG, took a decade to build and started operations in October of 1995. GONG consists of six solar observatories spaced around the Earth so that at least one of the observatories always has the Sun in view.

"Despite the exquisite images we have of the Sun's surface, we know almost nothing about its interior," John Leibacher told The New York Times. Leibacher is chief scientist of the GONG project and solar physicist at the National Solar Observatory. "Now we can use GONG to peer into the solar interior. We can use what we learn about the Sun as a Rosetta stone to understand other stars. We'll also learn more about how the Sun affects our own planet."

The rumblings of the Sun's interior do not travel through the vacuum of space, and are, in any event, too deep for humans to hear. But the physicists are expecting to "watch" the noise by studying oscillation patterns on the surface of the Sun.

GONG data should yield answers to basic questions, including: How does the Sun derive power from hydrogen fusion? Why does the Sun have spots? And even provide information on how much longer will the Sun sustain life on Earth?

"Until recently, it seemed impossible to resolve these questions by studying the 98.5 percent of the solar system's mass that is contained within the Sun," John Harvey of the National Solar Observatory wrote in Physics Today. But the powerful sound waves recorded by GONG should reveal more of the Sun's secrets than any other study so far, he says.

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