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NEAF 2011: Solar Party

Not all astronomy has to be done at night. Some of the most interesting stuff happens during the day. The downside is there is really only one thing to look at during the day, the Sun. Of course, just because there is only one thing to see does not mean it will be boring. The Sun is an amazing to look at and utterly fascinating object to study.

Solar activities are not just visual curiosities they can have immediate, direct, and substantial impact here on Earth. In fact, NASA is devoting a lot of resources (Solar Dynamic ObservatorySolar and Heliospheric ObservatoryHinode) to monitoring and reporting on what is happening with our Sun. While not as popular as night astronomy, amateurs are increasingly looking skyward during the day. Some are no doubt inspired by photographers such as Alan Friedman and his stunning images of the eruptions, prominences, and other activities on the Sun’s surface.

Eclipses are probably the most well known of the daytime astronomical events. However, providing that one has the proper equipment, one can go and make interesting solar observations anytime the sun is out. Everyone knows that one should never look directly at the sun with the naked eye. We also know that it would be CRAZY to try looking at it using a telescope, unless one does it with the aid of a proper solar filter. At the NEAF Solar Party we had an opportunity to learn a little more about making solar observations and the various equipment available to do it safely.

While flares and prominences are dramatic solar events to see, sunspots are dependable phenomena which can be observed using very simple and relatively inexpensive equipment. The SunSpotter is one such setup. The SunSpotter is a solar telescope that enables one to see sun spots without looking directly at the sun. It is easy to setup, adjust, and safe for kids. It can also be used in a group setting, making it a perfect teaching tool.

Nobody at NEAF could give us much background about the SunSpotter, but a quick Google search gave us the low-down on its history. We were surprised to learn the SunSpotter was invented and originally made locally in Somerville MA. However, it is unclear who currently manufactures the device as the original company, Learning Technologies, no long appears to exist.

We are really glad we stopped by the NEAF Solar Party. It has inspired us to attempt some solar astronomy projects this year. The first project we are going to tackle is making a solar film filter for our small Meade 2045 portable telescope. We may follow that with an attempt at building our own SunSpotter from scratch. The construction looks simple enough, but the optics may take a bit of trial and error to get correct. Besides, it will be a perfect RainyDayProject for the BladeRunner 🙂

The idea of solar astronomy is very appealing for us in Boston, as we can do it whenever the sun is out. The benefit of daytime astronomy is obvious. It is generally easier and more comfortable when we can see what we are doing…and especially when we don’t!

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