Visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Reichert Planetarium can now view the sun through a new solar telescope. The planetarium has just installed a Lunt Solar Systems hydrogen-alpha solar telescope in the observatory — for daytime observation of the sun.
Dave Bush, the planetarium’s technical and production coordinator, and an astronomy educator, said the solar telescope is mounted “piggy back” onto the 16-inch Meade reflecting telescope in order to track the sun across the sky.
“The refractor-style telescope with its 80-milimeter optical aperture gives us sharp detail and contrast of features on the surface and the limb, or edge, of the sun,” he said. “This telescope allows us to see prominences, flares, super granulation, filaments and active regions.”
Bush explained that hydrogen-alpha light is emitted by the hydrogen atoms that make up the majority of the sun’s composition. When electrons within the hydrogen atoms absorb energy and rise to a higher energy level and then fall back to their original orbits, light is emitted at a particular wavelength that can be seen with the specialized telescope.
“Typically, telescopic views of objects in outer space rarely change before our eyes in real time,” Bush said. “However, on a day when the sun is particularly active we can watch features on the sun evolve before our eyes while looking through an H-alpha telescope! The sun is dynamic and alive. It changes daily, and rotates,” he said.
In explaining the solar features in the picture of the sun, right, shot by photographer Alan Friedman, Bush said:
◆ The wisps of white curling off the upper left curve of the sun are prominences or arcs of gas that erupt from the surface. Sometimes the loops extend thousands of miles into space.
◆ The lighter spots and streaks are called plages, the French word for beaches, and are, appropriately, hot spots or bright emissions caused by emerging flux regions associated with the magnetic field of the sun.
◆ The tiny hair-like lines that extend from the surface are spicules. These are jets of hot gas that can rise up to 6,000 miles high. Most last only 15 minutes before morphing into new spicules.
◆ The dark spots are sun spots, which are cooler areas of the surface caused by the suppression of convection cells due to the sun’s strong magnetic field.
◆ The sun is 93 million miles from Earth and its size is almost beyond human comprehension — 1.3 million Earths could fit inside the sun.
The solar telescope is available for viewing on a limited schedule, on clear days. (The sun is not observable on cloudy or rainy days.)
The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Planetarium is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.