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Astronomers Give ArtsFest a Closer Look at the Sun

by on July 12, 2015 5:55 AM

When growing up, parents and science teachers always stress that you should never look directly at the sun.

Astronomers would tell you the same thing, but they have their own way of checking out the big star in the sky.

As a part of AstroFest, an astronomy-based festival going on each night on Penn State's campus this weekend, the department has set up a solar telescope on campus.

Just outside of the Creamery tent, where the sidewalk sale is taking place, there's a fancy telescope set up that shows the sun in a way you've likely never seen before.

At first glance, it's just a red circle. With some closer analysis, there are clear solar flares coming off of the sun, with noticeable black spots visible too.

Guang Yang, a Penn State graduate student in astronomy, is helping man the telescope and show interested observers a better look at the ball of light that brings us daytime.

"When we say we can look at the sun, people just go crazy because they say you can't look at the sun because it can damage your eyes," Yang says. "But this is a safe way to look at it, since you should never look at the sun directly."

The telescope on display is specifically designed for solar observation, making it safe to look at the sun and its intricacies in a whole new way. What is usually a terrifying sight that you shield your eyes with sunglasses in fear of retinal damage becomes this brilliant red sphere with sun spots, solar flares, and more.

"At the edge of the sun, you can see some filaments that are in fact solar flares," Yang says. "They're hot stuff. And you can also see some black spots, which are sun spots. They look black because they are cooler than other areas. The black spots and solar flares are not always there and sometimes they appear in different areas and sometimes they disappear."

There's plenty of sun out this weekend, and Yang says the star is in a fairly active state right now, making for some good observational opportunities.

"When the solar activity is strong, you can see more flares and sun spots, and when it is weak you see less of them," Yang says. "There is a special filter here so you can only see a little light through there. You can't look at the sun through a normal telescope, as it can damage your telescope as well as your eyes."

Yang adds that solar observation makes for a good opportunity to learn more about the star we take for granted on a daily basis.

"You can learn something about solar activity when you see some big flares," he says. "That means the sun is very active and there's a strong solar wind, where many energetic particles are coming that can effect the Earth and effect the weather in the solar system."

The AstroFest representatives also have a more archaic sun spotter on display, which acts as a projector of sorts, displaying the sun on a sheet of paper in the small wooden device. There are very clear dark spots -- the sun spots -- within the circle of light projected onto the paper. Yang says they use the sun spots to track the rotation of the sun.

AstroFest finished up Saturday night after four days of lectures and activities at the campus laboratory. Planetarium shows, telescope observing, a gravity gym and various children's activities took place over the course of the festival.

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Zach Berger is the managing editor of StateCollege.com. He graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with a degree in print journalism. Zach enjoys writing about a variety of topics ranging from football to government, music, and everything in between.
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