October is the perfect month to get into astronomy and explore the sky above us. The full chill of winter hasn’t set in yet, and the sun sets early enough that you don’t have to stay up into the early hours of the morning to get the full experience. In last month’s issue of T8N we looked at how to get started as an amateur astronomer, and we explored a few nearby dark sky preserves while we were at it. But not all stars require a dark sky preserve to be made visible. In fact, there is one star up in the sky that can only be seen during the day. That’s right, we’re talking about the sun.
Most of us learn as young children that we should never stare directly at the sun, and after that lesson is learned, we tend not to give the sun too much consideration unless there happens to be an eclipse. But solar observations can be just as rewarding to astronomy enthusiasts as regular dark-sky viewing is— as long as you have the right tools. Your parents were right after all, you should never look directly at the sun, and using a regular telescope to search for solar phenomena would bring even greater harm to your eyes.
Solar astronomers use special telescopes which protect their eyes from the harmful rays of the sun and allow them to view Earth’s closest star as it appears in reality, without all of that glare and eye strain. From this new perspective, astronomers are able to clearly see sunspots, solar flares, solar winds and much more. The sun is almost like a constant fireworks display that we just never take the time to look at.
Unfortunately, this specialized solar equipment can be expensive, and for many amateur astronomers, solar observation just isn’t a realistic investment. Regular telescopes are much cheaper and infinitely more versatile. But there is still an option for prospective solar enthusiasts in the Edmonton area. The University of Alberta’s Observatory opens its doors to the public every Thursday afternoon, and the solar telescopes are available to use, free of charge. The resident astronomers are on hand, of course, both to answer questions and to make sure that nobody breaks their expensive equipment. There is a bustle of activity on the surface of the sun that almost has to be seen in order to be believed, and the University’s astronomy department is eager to make those images as available as possible.
For more information on the observatory and day-time astronomy, you can visit their website here.