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Observing the Sun for Yourself

Observing the Sun for Yourself

Observing the Sun for Yourself
(expanded, PDF version of this page)

Don't ever look directly at the Sun through a telescope or in any other way, unless you have the proper filters.
Can one damage their eyes by looking directly at the Sun?

solar image

There are several ways you can observe the Sun, and hopefully sunspots, for yourself. The easiest and safest is to project the Sun by building your own pinhole camera. Or, if you have your own telescope, you will need to obtain a solar filter. There are even solar telescopes online, which you can access via the web to observe the Sun.

Projecting the Sun | Using the little Sunspotter Telescope | Remote Telescopes | Using Your Own Telescope | Observing Solar Eclipses | Comparing Your Sunspot Drawings

Projecting the Sun

You can easily and safely observe the Sun by projecting it through a tiny hole onto a white sheet of paper. This simple device is called a "pinhole camera". You'll need:

  • 2 sheets of stiff white paper
  • A pin
  • A sunny day
  • Perhaps a friend to help
With the pin, punch a hole in the center of one of your pieces of paper. Go outside, hold the paper up and aim the hole at the Sun. (Don't look at the Sun either through the hole or in any other way! ) Now, find the image of the Sun which comes through the hole. Move your other piece of paper back and forth until the image looks best. What you are seeing is not just a dot of light coming through the hole, but an actual image of the Sun!

Experiment by making your holes larger or smaller. What happens to the image? What do you think would happen if you punched a thousand holes in your paper, and you put little lenses in front of each hole to refract (e.g. bend) the solar images to all fall on top of each other. What do you think you'd see? In fact, optical telescopes can be thought of as a collection of millions of "pinhole" images all focused together in one place!

You can also project an image of the Sun using a pair of binoculars or small telescope:

Projecting the Sun (adapted from Society for Popular Astronomy SPA)
Projecting the Sun (via telescope)
The Sun (Dark Sky Insitute)
Observing the Sun for Yourself (PDF)

If you want, you can make your pinhole camera fancier by adding devices to hold up your piece of paper, or a screen to project your Sun image onto, or you can even adapt your pinhole camera into a "real" camera by adding film.

If you want to learn more about how light works, you can join artist Bob Miller's web-based "Light Walk" at the Exploratorium. It's always an eye-opening experience for students and teachers alike. His unique discoveries will change the way you look at light, shadow, and images!

Bob Miller's Light Walk

Using the little Sunspotter Telescope

A safe and inexpensive solar telescope of your own! Thanks to the efforts of Learning Technologies, Inc., who brought you the Starlab portable planetariums and the Project Star kits, schools can now own solar telescope of their own. This wooden, folded-path, Keplerian telescope provides a much safer and convenient way to view the brilliant light of the Sun than other more common methods. By using a series of mirrors, the device projects a bright 3.25-inch solar image onto a 5-inch white viewing screen through a powerful 62mm diameter objective lens. In its perfectly curved cradle, the Sunspotter is easily aligned to the Sun in seconds, without the complication of telescopes, solar filters, and tripods. The Sunspotters run approximately $350 and are available through a multitude of scientific supply organizations.

Using Remote Solar Telescopes

Using Mike Rushford's robotic solar observatory in Livermore, California, you can actually control your realtime view of the Sun by controlling this telescope from your web browser. At cloudy times, there are other things to do as well!

Eyes on the Skies

Using Your Own Telescope

The safest way to look at the Sun through your own telescope is NOT to! Not only could you damage your eye, but you can also damage the lenses in the telescope.

The safest practical way to see the Sun is by eyepiece projection. Line up your telescope with the Sun, but do not look through the eyepiece! Instead, hold a sheet of white paper behind the eyepiece. You'll see a solar image projected onto the paper. What happens when you move the paper farther back? Experiment with the paper for a sharp viewing contrast. You should be able to see the largest sunspots with this method.

Viewing the Sun with a Telescope

Dr. Sunspot gives more detailed information about viewing the Sun with a telescope and filters.

Hydrogen-Alpha Solar Filters

This site is designed to help educate you on the basics of front and rear mounted Hydrogen-Alpha (Ha) filters, what you can see through them, and assist you in making an educated choice when/if it comes time to buy.
Observing the Sun in H-Alpha
This site give technical information on how to observe the Sun with your own telescope using an H-alpha filter.

Observing Solar Eclipses

Sunspot Drawings

Until recently, astronomers have had to rely on drawings or sketches to document what they've seen. The world of CCD cameras and other technological wonders has changed all that. However, historic drawings are still very important. And even today, drawings are still more accurate at recording exactly what the eye sees, unaltered by the processing of fancy electronics.

Drawings of sunspots have been done for hundreds of years. Galileo's drawings still survive today. And, the solar telescope at Mt. Wilson, above Pasadena, California, has been collecting sunspot drawings since 1917. This tradition still continues. You can check the current sunspot drawings each day, and compare them with your own:

Daily Sunspot Drawings at Mt. Wilson.
Galileo's Sunspot Drawings.

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