The value of the gravitational constant was first derived from measurements that were made by Henry Cavendish in 1798 with a torsion balance. The value he obtained differs by only 1% from the modern value. The diurnal parallax of the Sun was accurately measured during the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769, yielding a value of 9″ (9 arcseconds, compared to the present 1976 value of 8.794148″). From the value of the diurnal parallax, one can determine the distance to the Sun from the geometry of Earth.
The first person to estimate the mass of the Sun was Isaac Newton. In his work Principia (1687), he estimated that the ratio of the mass of Earth to the Sun was about 1/28 700. Later he determined that his value was based upon a faulty value for the solar parallax, which he had used to estimate the distance to the Sun (1 AU). He corrected his estimated ratio to 1/169 282 in the third edition of the Principia. The current value for the solar parallax is smaller still, yielding an estimated mass ratio of 1/332 946.
As a unit of measurement, the solar mass came into use before the AU and the gravitational constant were precisely measured. This is because the relative mass of another planet in the Solar System or the combined mass of two binary stars can be calculated in units of Solar mass directly from the orbital radius and orbital period of the planet or stars using Kepler's third law, provided that orbital radius is measured in astronomical units and orbital period is measured in years.
The mass of the Sun has been decreasing since the time it formed. This occurs through two processes in nearly equal amounts. First, in the Sun's core, hydrogen is converted into helium through nuclear fusion, in particular the p–p chain, and this reaction converts some mass into energy in the form of gamma ray photons. Most of this energy eventually radiates away from the Sun. Second, high-energy protons and electrons in the atmosphere of the Sun are ejected directly into outer space as the solar wind and coronal mass ejections.
The original mass of the Sun at the time it reached the main sequence remains uncertain. The early Sun had much higher mass-loss rates than at present, and it may have lost anywhere from 1–7% of its natal mass over the course of its main-sequence lifetime. The Sun gains a very small amount of mass through the impact of asteroids and comets. However, as the Sun already contains 99.86% of the Solar System's total mass, these impacts cannot offset the mass lost by radiation and ejection.