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  • Writer's pictureMike Meynell

A Day of Solar Wonders: From Sunspots to the Aurora – 10th May 2024

The Flamsteed Astronomy Society kicked off its 2024 solar viewing season in spectacular fashion at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. On a sunny day marked by only brief hazy intervals, the event drew approximately 550 attendees, who were treated to a breathtaking celestial display, underlining the dynamic and ever-changing face of our closest star.

In an unexpected follow-up to our solar viewing, last night brought an extraordinary display of aurora borealis, visible even in the skies over London. This rare spectacle was a direct consequence of the intense solar activity observed during the day.

Detail of sunspot group AR3664

The day began at 10:45am, with eager visitors gathering by the Dolphin Sundial at the observatory’s main entrance. Conditions were nearly ideal for solar viewing, with just slight haze occasionally passing across the sky. The sun flaunted a large group of sunspots (AR3664) and a prominence that was among the largest ever observed by our members. These sunspots - cooler regions on the solar surface - are temporary phenomena appearing as darker spots due to interactions with the sun's magnetic field. The observed prominence, a large, bright feature extending outward from the sun’s surface, looping hundreds of thousands of miles into space, underscored that we might be nearing the solar maximum. This peak in the sun’s 11-year activity cycle is characterized by an increased number of sunspots and solar flares.

We had several instruments on hand, specially designed for solar observation, to ensure that attendees could view these phenomena safely and effectively. The H-alpha telescope, a perennial favourite, allowed for the visualization of filaments and prominences in incredible detail by capturing the light emitted by hydrogen atoms in the solar atmosphere. This telescope provided stunning views of the solar surface, enabling attendees to see the intricate structures of the prominences and sunspots in real-time.

Viewing the Sun through the H-Alpha Solar Telescope

The Sunspotter projector, always a crowd-pleaser, was also a huge hit. This device projects an image of the sun onto a white surface, allowing for safe group viewing and discussion, particularly engaging for children and those who find looking through a telescope eyepiece challenging. Additionally, the Seestar smart telescope was used to project live images of the sun onto a smartphone, offering a modern twist to solar observation and making the sun’s features accessible in the palm of your hand.

The "Sunspotter" was, once again, a popular attraction

Amid the solar observations, another historic feature of the Royal Observatory, the red timeball on top of Flamsteed House, made its traditional descent at 1pm. Although significant, this event was captured on video by Bobby and passed under the radar for many attendees, who were far more captivated by the telescope views of the sun's dramatic features!

The success of the event was made possible through the hard work and enthusiasm of our volunteers. This year’s team included both seasoned members and new volunteers, creating a dynamic group that was well-prepared to manage the large turnout and ensure that every attendee had a memorable experience. Special thanks are due to Phil, Helen, Jo, John, Simon, Clive, Alec, Bobby, and Les, who, along with myself, not only operated the telescopes and educated the public about what they were observing but also helped with logistics and crowd management.

Part of the brilliant Flamsteed team, at the end of the observing day

Their dedication was evident in the smooth running of the event and the positive feedback received from the public. Engaging with around 550 people in just over five hours, our volunteers demonstrated exceptional commitment and passion for astronomy, making complex scientific phenomena accessible and exciting for everyone.

As we continue our series of public solar viewings, we remind everyone that the next sessions are scheduled for the weekend of May 25-26. We hope to continue this momentum and bring even more exciting and educational viewing opportunities to the public.

Aurora Borealis visible over Blackheath, looking towards Greenwich Park

And then, the final twist: the extraordinary display of aurora borealis, visible with the naked eye in light-polluted London skies! Though not part of this event, it was a direct consequence of the sunspot group AR3664 which so captivated our audience during the solar viewing event. A G5 extreme geomagnetic storm resulted in this rare phenomenon. For the first time in my lifetime, the aurora was clearly visible in London. The vibrant colours of the aurora dancing across the urban night sky were a breathtaking sight, underscoring the profound impact our sun has on Earth.

In conclusion, the first solar viewing session of 2024 was not just a demonstration of celestial phenomena but also a testament to the passion and commitment of the Flamsteed Astronomy Society and its volunteers. It was a day filled with learning, discovery, and community engagement, setting a high standard for the rest of the viewing season. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone involved and look forward to welcoming even more attendees at future events.

Pictures from the day (by Mike Meynell, Bobby Manoo, Phil Benson and Rosie Meynell):


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