We’re all [hopefully] told from a young age never to look directly at the Sun. It’s true, the Sun is so bright that even from 150 million km (that’s about 93 million miles) away it will burn your retinas and cause long lasting damage. So how can the average person without access to observatories and space telescopes view the sun? There are all sorts of solar events to see, and a lot of them are rare so you don’t want to miss them!
The first and easiest way for anyone to view things like a solar eclipse or transit is the internet. NASA provides a webcast on their site of these events. It’s convenient when there’s a cloud covered sky or the particular event is only viewable from somewhere other than where you are. However, I don’t think watching a video stream is nearly as amazing as being able to actually see it. If you feel the same, there is a couple of way you can watch them.
Solar telescopes are a little bit pricey. They are built with special, high quality filters which allow for a great view of the sun, close up, without risk of damaging your eyes. These are useful for everyday viewing too, not just special events. You’ll be able to see sunspots and other fine details completely safely. For a regular telescope, there are attachable filters you can buy. However, consumers should be careful with these as they are not the same quality as an actual solar scope, and have been known to fracture, which can cause eye damage if you happen to bee looking through it when it happens.
If you can’t afford a solar telescope, there is still hope. You can project an image of the sun onto a surface, making it safe for your eyes. The cheapest and simplest way is to make a camera obscura. This is also a great science experiment for children as it teaches safety, astronomy and light science! If you happen to have a telescope or strong binoculars, you can rig a similar set up and use the lenses to project your image, making it easier to adjust and focus. But remember do not look through a telescope, binoculars or camera pointing directly at the Sun.
Here are a few common solar events
Solar Eclipse: I’m sure almost everyone’s heard of them. In ancient times looked upon as significant religious or spiritual occurrences, and eclipse happens when the moon passes between the Earth and sun, covering the entire solar disc. This allows us to see the sun’s corona. However, the moon’s shadow on Earth is a relative pinprick, so only a small area can see the true eclipse. Not to be confused with a lunar eclipse, which is when the moon passes through Earth’s shadow. These are rare events so if you have a chance to see one, don’t miss it!
Anular Eclipse: Similar to a total solar eclipse, an anular eclipse takes place when the moon is a little closer to Earth (it’s not always the exact same distance) and doesn’t block out the entire sun. This leaves a “ring of fire” surrounding the moon’s shadow.
Partial Solar Eclipse: More common than the total eclipse, this happens when the moon passes over part of the Sun’s disc leaving the rest of it exposed.
Transit: A transit is what happens when a planet passes between the Sun and Earth. The only two planets which do this are Venus and Mercury as they are the only ones closer to the Sun. You’ll have to look carefully to see it, but they only happen ever few years, so it’s not something to miss.
Sun Spots: The surface of the Sun is very turbulent. Sometimes small areas will cool slightly. The cooler parts don’t glow as brightly and when put against the rest of the blazing surface appear as small black dots. These are known as Sun spots, and larger ones can been seen in projections. Solar Telescopes are very good for seeing these.
People seem to get fascinated with the stars easily, but often over look the closest one to us. There is a ton of amazing stuff happening in the sky even during the day time. The up coming transit of Mercury (Monday May 9th 2016) is a perfect opportunity to try out one of these methods. I’m looking forward too it and encourage you all to check it out if you have time as well!