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You know how sometimes a song will get stuck in your head? Everything by They Might Be Giants has that effect on me. Today's song is "Why Does the Sun Shine?" It's a nice little educational song... "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." Have you ever wondered what else is in the sun besides hydrogen and helium? I hunted up a table (source: NASA - Goddard Space Flight Center) listing the sun's elemental composition, which we know from analysis of its spectral signature. I'm sure you're not surprised that hydrogen is the most abundant element. The sun is constantly fusing hydrogen into helium, but don't expect the ratio of hydrogen to helium to change anytime soon. The sun is 4.5 billion years old and has converted about half of the hydrogen in its core into helium. It still has about 5 billion years before the hydrogen runs out.

ElementAbundance (% of totalAbundance
number of atoms)(% of total mass)
Hydrogen91.271.0
Helium8.727.1
Oxygen0.0780.97
Carbon0.043 0.40
Nitrogen0.00880.096
Silicon0.0045 0.099
Magnesium 0.00380.076
Neon0.0035 0.058
Iron0.0300.014
Sulfur0.0150.040

Global Brightening & Dimming | Abundant Earth Elements
Photo: Image of the sun taken by the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, July 15 1999. (NASA)

Comments

May 21, 2008 at 12:56 pm
(1) Geology Guide says:

You’ll find the original of that song at Jaf Poskanzer’s :singing Science Records” page here.

October 30, 2008 at 2:24 am
(2) anju says:

whats the actual compostion of the sun?? could tell me whats the difference between total % mass composition and percentage abundance in no of atoms? which is comonnly used to denote the composition?

September 28, 2009 at 2:50 pm
(3) Elizabeth says:

Since elements heavier than hydrogen are made by nuclear fusion on the sun, ex. H + H –> He , what are the reactions that make the other elements found on the sun?

May 12, 2010 at 8:36 am
(4) ssewanga Jeremy says:

I would like to know if in in case the sun can reduce it’s heat or increase it?

June 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm
(5) Dave says:

Care to mention the CNO cycle versus the Triple Alpha cycle versus the Proton-Proton cycle? Oh, wait, I just did. :-)

Dave

June 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm
(6) Benton Jackson says:

Make sure you listen to the next song, “Why does the sun really shine?”

October 26, 2010 at 11:13 am
(7) Clyde McDowell says:

How much silver, and how much gold is there in our sun?

April 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm
(8) david says:

wow i neded dis for my home work

July 5, 2011 at 11:44 am
(9) Marcus says:

the figure given in the table for the mass abundance of iron is too small by about a factor of ten.

the table says around 0.01% and the correct value is around 0.1%

this error has propagated from website to website at the popular outreach level. you don’t find this mistake being made at the professional level.

iron abundance is about the same as that of silicon.

July 30, 2011 at 12:55 am
(10) None Of Your Business says:

Are you serious?! I need more information than that! I need information on the sun for my assessment at school! Please, put more info. We’re begging you…

August 2, 2011 at 4:55 am
(11) davies says:

what are percentages of them all pppppppplllllllleeeeeeeeaaaaaaaasssssssseeeeeeee!!!!!!!! reply

March 11, 2013 at 12:20 am
(12) Shakaela says:

This doesn’t make too much sense, it’s a bit jumbled up and over scientific like Wikipedia, for a kid, can you say simply what the chemical composition of the sun is???????????? please???????????? that would be so awesome! Thanks :)

May 22, 2013 at 10:34 am
(13) JAMES says:

how you know this?can i get explanation based on the observed properties of light emitted by our sun.

September 3, 2013 at 1:43 am
(14) av says:

the sun doesn’t emit light. it emits a energy that only becomes visible when it interacts with gross matter. The sun is transformer of a Primary Counter Space Energy into secondary energy . Its like a smushed together sphere of empty space. The fusion takes place only in the twisting of the magnetic fields on the surface and not inside the sun.

February 4, 2014 at 3:41 am
(15) Jeff says:

Isn’t there a hypothesis somewhere that suggests that one or some of the higher elements in the Sun’s composition, cannot be produced in its current state; but from an older star, which suggests our Sun was born out of a super nova of another star before it. I am sure I heard or read that somewhere.

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