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A month of sun days — observing and sketching the Sun

Jane Houston Jones

Jane at the eyepiece of her homemade solar dobsonian. An H-alpha sun scope is on the equatorial mount.

Flare-producing sunspot group 162 sketched 10/21/02 by the author.

Sunspot group 177's biggest spot split in half two days after the sketch was made on Nov. 5.


I love observing the Sun and sketching sunspots but have never really tracked the rotation over an extended period of time. I started Googling and soon I found several excellent resources on the web to help me with my solar education. First, I ordered the Astronomical League's booklet Observe and Understand the Sun by ALPO solar coordinator Richard E. Hill. I used the forms in the booklet for my sketches. These forms are also available free of charge on the Astronomical League's Sunspotter Club website.

On a sunny sun day in October, I set up my homemade f/9 6-inch dobsonian solar scope on the back deck and had a 54 power look at the Sun. I saw nine active regions — regions with more than one sunspot (there were actually 12 but I didn't see some of them) and I counted 26 spots (actually 51) for a Wolf sunspot number of 171. My count using this method was 116. Wolf chose to compute his sunspot number by adding 10 times the number of groups to the total count of individual spots, because neither quantity alone completely captured the level of activity.

Each day I sketched the Sun's disk and some days I also sketched the large active regions. Afterwards, I used Hill's booklet to classify the spots. The most interesting regions (to me) were the D, E and F classes of sunspots because they produce flares. On days when there were flare-producing spots visible, I also set up our f/6.8 70mm Televue Ranger fitted with a Coronado SolarMax60 H-alpha filter, to see the action.

New spots rotated on to the eastern limb and others rotated off the western limb. One particularly active region, AR0177, a DKI flare-producing region, first showed its spots on October 31. "D" stands for a bipolar group with penumbra on both ends and a length of less that 10 degrees. "K" means the largest spot in the region is an asymmetric spot with a diameter greater than 2.5 degrees. And the "I" means numerous umbral spots lie between leader and follower spots. To put this big "K" spot in perspective, 2.5 degrees spans 12,000 miles and the diameter of earth is 7,900 miles. This means the big spot was 1 1/2 times the diameter of the earth ... and growing! On November 6 it split in two! Of course that was the first day of our first winter storm, and it rained all day. :-( This sunspot group is still visible today, November 10th, as I write this article. The accompanying sketch was made on November 5th.

On October 19, two other amazing active regions caught my eye — AR0162 and 0165. These regions were visible to the naked eye! AR162 spanned 22 degrees — which is over 13 earth diameters. A few days later it was even bigger, at 27 degrees or 16 earth diameters — comprised of over 60 sunspots before it started to decay. Classified FKC — "F" for bipolar group greater than 15 degrees in length, "K" for the humongous spot larger than 2.5 degrees, and "C" for compact distribution of spots containing many spots with some having their own penumbra. It was visible until November 1st. The sketch of this sunspot group, made on October 21st, includes these features:

Faculae: relatively large (greater than an arc minute) irregularly shaped light area; sometimes serpentine in shape. Sunspots are usually located in faculae.

Granulation: fine grain structure of the solar photosphere. Grains appear to be one to two arc-seconds in diameter.

Light bridge: a bright ribbon or band that may appear to connect two sunspots.

Penumbra: a gray area which frequently, but not always, appears around an individual sunspot or group of sunspots.

Penumbral fibril: fiber like lines that may appear to radiate out from an umbra into the surrounding penumbra.

Penumbral grain: granular or small patchy structure that may be visible in the penumbra.

Umbra: The dark black area of a sunspot.

I hope this gives you an appreciation for observing the Sun. It's astronomy we can do in the daytime with the right equipment. There are two websites I look at on a daily basis to verify my observations, or in the case of a cloud-out, to get my solar fix. I think you'll enjoy them as much as I do.

The NOAA Active Regions, including a solar activity report

Latest Solar Images


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