These images show two Jupiter-sized sunspot groups on the face of the Sun (left) and an extreme close-up of a different, smaller sunspot group (right). The lefthand image was taken on Oct. 24, 2003 by the SOHO (Solar & Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft. The righthand image was taken on July 15, 2002 by the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope on the island of La Palma off the western coast of Africa. The central dark part of the large sunspot in the middle of the righthand image is about 14,000 km (8,700 miles) across... slightly larger than Earth!
Click on image for full size
Images courtesy SOHO (NASA & ESA) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Sunspots are dark, planet-sized regions that appear on the "surface" of the Sun. Sunspots are "dark" because they are cooler than their surroundings. A large sunspot might have a central temperature of 4,000 K (about 3,700° C or 6,700° F), much lower than the 5,800 K (about 5,500° C or 10,000° F) temperature of the adjacent photosphere. Sunspots are only dark in contrast to the bright face of the Sun. If you could cut an average sunspot out of the Sun and place it elsewhere in the night sky, it would be about as bright as a full moon. Sunspots have a lighter outer section called the penumbra, and a darker central region named the umbra.
Sunspots are caused by disturbances in the Sun's magnetic field welling up to the photosphere, the Sun's visible "surface". The powerful magnetic fields in the vicinity of sunspots produce active regions on the Sun, which in turn frequently spawn disturbances such as solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). Because sunspots are associated with solar activity, space weather forecasters track these features in order to help predict outbursts of "solar storms".
Sunspots form over periods lasting from days to weeks, and can persist for weeks or even months before dissipating. The average number of spots visible on the face of the Sun is not constant, but varies in a multi-year cycle. Historical records of sunspot counts, which go back hundreds of years, verify that this sunspot cycle has an average period of roughly eleven years.
Our Sun isn't the only star with spots. In recent years, astronomers have been able to detect "starspots" - "sunspots" on other stars.
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