Southwest Astronomy Festival: Sun Parties


What Will You See at a Sun Party?

Star parties are amazing, but Sun parties can be just as spectacular. The Sun is our nearest star, but perhaps because of its omnipresence, we just don’t think about it that often – and we don’t often point telescopes at it.

Using a solar telescope will allow you to see prominences on the side of the Sun. If there are any sunspots, we’ll be able to see those as well. If you look for a longer period of time, you can actually see movement on the Sun, not unlike the movement of clouds. It’s slow, steady, but noticeable.

Three adults with telescopes and a poster of the sun.

A Star Party of One

Viewing the Sun has almost the exact opposite problem of viewing stars or distant galaxies. For any telescope at a star party, it’s important to collect as much light as possible from distant and faint objects. Telescopes are even referred to as “light buckets” by some astronomers to highlight the fact that a telescope’s primary purpose is to collect as much light from distant objects as possible.

Contrast that with our Sun; it’s much too bright to look at – even with the naked eye* (which you should never do).

So why would we ever look at it with a telescope? A solar telescope (also called a ‘hydrogen-alpha telescope’) is built specifically to filter out most of the light we would normally see from the Sun. Just like a regular telescope, it still collects and focuses light, making the Sun look closer and showing us details we wouldn’t otherwise see. However, the key aspect of a solar telescope is that it uses filters to block out the vast majority of light from the Sun, so we can actually look at it without burning our eyes.

It’s important to note that a solar telescope is very different from a regular telescope. NEVER look at the Sun through a regular telescope. NEVER look at the Sun directly (see below for examples of why looking at the Sun should be avoided at all costs).
Orange sun.

What if the Sun is Really Boring?

Sometimes the Sun is extremely active, with prominences, sunspots, and visible movement on its surface. Other times, it just looks like a giant orange ball. While there are long cycles of solar minimum and solar maximum (on an 11 year cycle), some days are just better than others, and there’s no sure way to predict when the Sun is going to look amazing.
It is likely that we’ll see prominences and sunspots – but if we don’t, we’ll still look through a really cool telescope at the Sun, and we’ll have activities outside.

We’ll go on a Star System Walk (similar to a Planet Walk, but with our Sun’s nearest neighbors) and there will be rangers and educators there to talk about the Sun and its relationship to Earth.

*Never ever ever look directly at the Sun. Even during an eclipse, permanent damage can be done to your eyes. Looking at the Sun can damage your fovea (which you need in order to maintain sharp vision). It can damage multiple parts of your eye. The Sun also produces UV light, which can be destructive to the cells in our eyes. Too much ocular exposure to the Sun is linked with developing cortical cataracts and nuclear cataracts later on in life. Exposure can burn the cornea. Additionally, ocular exposure to the Sun is strongly linked to developing Pterygium, an abnormal tissue growth in the eye. While some people can recover from too much ocular exposure to the Sun, case after case shows us that purposely looking at the Sun is never a good idea.

Last updated: July 18, 2018

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