Showing the Sun to the Public

Observing the Sun is one of the few astronomical activities that can hurt you.

Yes, I know I’ve mentioned this before. I have to be uncharacteristically stern about this one. If you don’t observe the Sun properly, you could blind yourself.

If you’re going to help with public solar observing, there’s one more thing to worry about. (After all, you didn’t have enough to worry about already, right?) People will be watching you observe the Sun. Make sure they know that precautions are essential. I suggest posting a sign that reads something like this:

This telescope has a special filter for observing the Sun safely.
Don’t try to observe the Sun unless you know exactly what you are doing.

This tells visitors that you’re doing something unusual and that you’re taking their safety seriously.

Don’t forget that when you’re helping with public observing, you’ve become an instant expert. Whether you feel like an expert or not, you’ll be seen as one. So, you have to be sure you’re setting the best examples you possibly can. While you’re showing the Sun to visitors, keep reminding them that you’re using special equipment to keep them safe. Make sure your own techniques are absolutely correct.

It doesn’t happen all that often, but remember that crowds can become unruly. Some children — and their parents, for that matter— can be very undisciplined. You’re not there to be a disciplinarian, but you can’t let shenanigans make the situation unsafe. At a minimum:

  • Do public observing with at least one or two fellow astronomers.
  • Never leave your equipment unattended. Not even for a moment. If you have to leave your post, get a reliable colleague to watch your equipment, or pack it up and  take it with you.
  • Don’t trust mounting screws or pads on a solar filter mounted over the objective. Tape the solar filter down securely. Little fingers can be too curious.
  • Be prepared to pack up and leave. If the crowd is getting too unruly for you, make your apologies and go.

Fortunately, public observing usually goes very well.  In many years as an astronomy educator, I’ve had very few problems, and most of those were minor. But the better prepared you are for problems, the more confident you’ll be, the more you’ll enjoy yourself, and the more your visitors will get from their time with you.



About Tim Cole

Astronomy enthusiast and educator, all-around fancier of dark skies and starry nights
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