Solar Active Region AR9169,
25 September 2000
It's official - the Sun has reached solar maximum, the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity! Solar activity is of interest to everyone on Earth because it affects the Earth's weather (can we blame it for all the rain in late summer 2000?) and because there is an increased chance of a geomagnetic storm at solar maximum. A geomagnetic storm occurs when a burst of charged particles (plasma) ejected from the Sun interferes with the Earth's magnetic field; it can disrupt radio communications and electricity supplies and the influx of plasma can produce spectacular auroral displays.
Of the several measures of solar activity, the most readily observable by amateur astronomers is the number of sunspots. Sunspots are caused by the rotation of the Sun. The Sun's equatorial regions rotate in about 25 days while its polar regions take more than 35 days. The difference in rotation periods contorts the Sun's magnetic field so that it twists and breaks, creating sunspots and other phenomena.
Ironically, at about the time that the Sun appeared to reach solar maximum in 2000, its disc appeared devoid of sunspots. Then, around the limb of the Sun came the largest sunspot group seen since 1991, shortly after the last peak of solar activity. As the Sun rotated it carried the sunspot group - designated Active Region 9169 - to the middle of the Sun's disc around the third/fourth week of September. The group was easily seen by projection and several members of OASI observed and photographed it. OASI member Nick Sullivan captured the images below on 25 September 2000, using a Meade ETX90 with Thousand Oaks Type 2+ solar filter.
26 mm Plossl eyepiece.
12.4 mm Plossl eyepiece.
AR9169 covered an area of the Sun about 13 times larger than the surface area of the Earth! The size of sunspots and sunspot groups is conventionally measured in millionths of the surface area of one hemisphere of the Sun. At its largest, AR9169 covered 2140 millionths of the solar hemisphere. The largest ever recorded sunspot group was seen in 1947 and measured over 6132 millionths.
The easiest way to observe sunspots is to use a small telescope or binoculars to project an image of the Sun on to a sheet of white card. My top tips for solar projection are:
- Never look at the Sun through a telescope or other optical device unless fitted with a good quality solar filter designed for the purpose.
- Don't leave solar observing equipment unattended ibecause of the risks of (a) someone looking through it directly at the Sun and damaging their eyesight; and (b) concentrating the Sun's rays onto an object, setting fire to it.
- Cover up finder scopes which may concentrate the Sun's rays onto an object causing damage.
- Avoid prolonged periods of projection which may overheat and damage the optics (specifically the eyepieces).
- Suppliers of astronomy equipment can provide purpose built solar filters such as that manufactured by Thousand Oaks which fit over the objective of a telescope to permit safe observation of the Sun.
Pete Richards & Nick Sullivan