Sidewalk Astronomy

It’s Summer in the Southern Hemisphere! Yay! And coincidentally, yesterday, the Sun was actually shining in Wellington giving us a brilliant hot day to do a bit of sidewalk astronomy with Milky-Way.kiwi’s very own solar telescope. Our setup is no STEREO A and B but it is still great for having a look at the Sun and seeing prominences and other features. It was the first time that we’ve had the solar telescope out wth the general public so we did a test run first wth the neighbours and a few visitors, nobody went blind so we knew we’d be safe for the general public.

Now this is probably a good time to remind people to never look at the Sun unless you have the right equipment. For this article we used a telescope that has been specially designed to look at the Sun, it has a filter that blocks nearly all of the light from the sun except for a tiny narrow band of the spectrum. Looking at the sun either, directly with your eyes, or through any optics without the correct filters can risk permanent blindness, as well damage your equipment. Now that the warning is out of the way we can get back to what we did and here’s a picture of Wellington and the harbour to set the scene.

At this time of the year, Wellington has a lot of tourists from cruise ships coming to visit so it’s a prime opportunity to show off the sights of the city as well as the sky. So the staff at Milky-Way.kiwi, both of us, decided to wander down to the Wellington Botanic Gardens to intercept tourists and convince them to look at the Sun.

It kind of went like this: “Hey, do you want to look at the Sun?” Which usually got the reply, “look at the what?”. Given most people were very surprised at being asked if they wanted to look at the Sun, we were very pleased that nearly everyone did! We also took the opportunity to give them the, highly collectable, Milky-Way.kiwi sticker.

The most amazing thing is when people exclaimed, with amazement, that they could see a prominence, it was also a great chance for us to tell people about the Sun and share some of our experiences with astronomy. Most people had no trouble seeing the Sun quite easily and only a few needed some help. The big thing we had to keep explaining to people was for them to take their time and let their eyes adjust to what they were looking at so they could see some of the fainter detail like prominences and the surface detail of the Sun.

The equipment we used was a Coronado PST 40mm solar telescope mounted on a Synta HEQ5 mount (see the first image). This was a great setup and it kept the telescope really stable and we aligned it reasonably well, only needing to adjust the position once in a while. This is a very bad photo of the Sun, taken by my iPhone through the eyepiece. Obviously I need a bit more practice but you get the idea and it shows the colour of the Sun through the telescope.

We must have been doing a good enough job because we got paid three biscuits by a very nice couple, probably from the cruise ship buffet, but very yummy and well received.

Why did we go out? Because we love astronomy, so assume that everyone else in the world does too, they just don’t know it yet and need to be shown how awesome it is. It was really rewarding to see the expression on the faces of people when they saw the Sun’s disk and then saw a prominence. They were genuinely surprised and amazed at what they could see. If you’ve got astronomy gear and it’s reasonably portable, then get out and show people the wonders of the sky, you’ll show them things that they have never seen before.

P.S.- one of our amazing observers from the day @leighghunt sent us this picture he took with his handheld smartphone through the eyepiece. That is very hard to do and we are very impressed with the result. You can see a big prominence at 8 o’clock. Thanks Leigh!