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Sunny Sidewalk 'Stronomy

Take to the streets, friends. As the sun nears maximum activity in its eleven-year cycle, sunspots have been frequent and large. Don't wait for April 8 to look at the sun, for it may be bursting with activity now. I encourage amateur astronomers to do sidewalk astronomy in the lead-up to the solar eclipse.

Person at telescope aimed at sun that is over building.
Sun's approximate position near mid-eclipse on April 8, 2024, as seen from corner of Chicory Cafe, South Bend, IN

A perfectly clear day invited me to set up a solar-filtered scope in downtown South Bend, IN. When I asked passers-by if they wanted to view the sun, some were tentative approaching me, others saw the telescope and said, "Hell yes!" Some were local, others from out of town. Some were unfamiliar with the date April 8--though nearly everyone had heard an eclipse was coming--and others had plans to travel to the path of totality. Visitors included a professor, students, parents with kids, a bicyclist, happy couples, a wheelchaired observer, a street ambassador, and more. One couple who will be on an airplane mid-eclipse is checking their seats to ensure being on the side with a view. Everyone was fun and engaging.

Digital billboard announcing the eclipse

While driving to the site I encountered a digital billboard announcing "Total Solar Eclipse-44 Days." True, but from South Bend the sun will be obscured over 96%, not the 100% totality the billboard image suggested. Still, I was happy to see the eclipse getting some advance recognition.

NASA image of today's sun

Meanwhile, the day's sun was exhibiting a giant sunspot group that had expelled several X-Class solar flares earlier in the week. It was a giant so big you could discern the sunspot group with the naked eye if you knew where to look and waited for the air to stabilize momentarily. For a short while I switched from a white light solar filter to a Sun Funnel, which clearly showed both the umbra and penumbra of the bigger sunspots.

Sun with spots projected onto Sun Funnel.
A magnified image of the sun with sunspots rear-projected onto Sun Funnel screen.

Key topics that came up doing sidewalk astronomy in late February include:

Admittedly, I was the one who would have introduced the latter topic about solar energy policy in the state, and I kept the discussion light. It was too beautiful a moment to bog down in Indiana politics.

I thank everyone who stopped by, several of whom wondered why I would set up a telescope on a downtown street corner mid-winter. The interaction with the public was a fine reward on a sunny day. I admittedly wondered why others would walk past the opportunity to take a peek at a monster sunspot. Apparently my carnival barking didn't appeal to their sense of curiosity.

If anyone from Michiana Astronomical Society wants to join me for future sidewalk astronomy leading up to the April 8, 2024 solar eclipse, please feel free to contact me on short notice to propose seizing the day. I'm ready to hit the streets again.


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