September 1, 2006 Sun spots are cooler regions on the sun's surface held up by magnetic fields, and they can have dramatic effects on space weather, disrupting satellite communications. Astrophysicists track them with sophisticated tools, but armed with welder's glass number 14 anyone can see the spots. Through the glass, the sun appears green, and sun spots are darker.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- While some people relish every sunset, others relish every sun spot.
"Sun spots are huge because the sun is huge. The smallest sun spot you're likely to see on the sun is as big as the Earth is. They're huge," Brad Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, tells DBIS.
Schaefer has spent his life viewing sun spots. The dark spots on the sun's surface are actually cooler regions held up by magnetic fields, and they're changing daily.
"You go from a lot of spots down to a little, few spots; up to a lot of spots again," Schaefer says. "And that whole cycle takes, well, it varies, but it takes -- on average -- 11 years."
Before you go looking for spots, a word of caution: Schaefer says you don't want to stare at the sun, because that can cause permanent damage to your eye. Shining a lens at a newspaper burns a hole through it. Staring at the sun does that to your retina.
To look safely at the sun, try welder's glass number 14. You can buy it at any welder supply store. With it, the sun appears green. The sun spots are darker.
Schaefer says, "Simple. Easy to use. Perfectly safe. Just hold 'em up, and look up."
You can also use binoculars, but never look directly at the sun through them. To help block out extra sunlight, cut holes in card stock and fit it over the lenses. Point the lenses at the sun, the eyepiece on white paper, and the sun shows up. Look closely for tiny sun spots.
Amateur astronomer Brendan Ruchlin says, "I think this is really cool that you can look at sun spots like this without blinding yourself."
And who knows? This sun-spotting fun could lead to an astronomical future.
BACKGROUND: The sun is continuing to produce very large sunspots, more than four years after "solar maximum" in the sunspot cycle, which typically recurs over 11 years. There is a sunspot currently transiting the solar disk that is about five times wider than Earth, big enough to view with the unaided eye.
ABOUT THE SUN: The sun is a star, and like most stars, it's composed of hot gases: almost 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium, with less than 1 percent being made up of oxygen and other elements. The source of the sun's energy is nuclear fusion. The nuclei of hydrogen atoms -- the simplest atoms, with one proton and one electron -- heat to such high temperatures (15,000,000 degrees Celsius) that they fuse together into helium nuclei – with two protons and two electrons. In the process, they lose a small amount of mass, which is transformed into energy. Although the sun loses half a million tons every second, it will continue to shine for about five billion years. Once all the hydrogen in the sun's core is converted into helium, the core will contract and become even hotter, while the outer part will expand and become cooler -- it will become a red giant star. Eventually all sources of energy production will be consumed and the sun will collapse into a very small, hot object called a white dwarf.
SUNSPOTS AND SOLAR FLARES: Sunspots are temporary features on the surface of sun, regions that are somewhat cooler that the surrounding surface area, so they appear darker. Astronomers believe that sunspots are basically whirlwinds of electrified matter that burst out from inside the sun. The number of sunspots rises and falls, and corresponds to the number of solar flares: bursts of intense radiation that eject streams of electrically charged particles. An increase in flares leads to an increase in sunspots, and the same goes for any decreases. Sunspots can cause electrical effects in the earth's atmosphere, such as the Northern Lights.
STARING AT THE SUN: It is extremely dangerous to stare directly at the sun with the naked eye, or even with binoculars or telescopes using unfiltered lenses, since the radiation will seriously damage the eyes and result in partial or total blindness. But it is possible to safely observe solar phenomena like sunspots or eclipses by taking reasonable precautions. For instance, you can project an image of the sun through a telescope or binoculars onto some sort of white screen, like a paper plate or a wall. A bright circle of light will show up on the screen. The image will probably be blurry, but you can focus the telescope to sharpen the circle so that you can see details in and around sunspot groups. You can also use pinhole projectors or solar filters to safely view the sun.
The American Astronomical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.