Luminous Crown

Corona is Latin for "crown," and it describes the region beyond the transition zone consisting of elements that have been highly ionized (stripped of their electrons) by the tremendous heat in the coronal region. Like the chromosphere, the corona is normally invisible, blotted out by the intense light of the photosphere. It is only during total solar eclipses that the corona becomes visible, at times when the disk of the moon covers the photosphere and the chromosphere. During such eclipse conditions, the significance of the Latin name becomes readily apparent: The corona appears as a luminous crown surrounding the darkened disk of the sun.

When the sun is active—a cycle that peaks every 11 years—its surface becomes mottled with sunspots, and great solar flares and prominences send material far above its surface.

Close Encounter

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves across the disk of the sun so that the moon's shadow falls across the face of the earth. In the heart of that shadow, called the umbra, the sun's disk will appear completely covered by that of the moon: a total solar eclipse. The umbra, however, only falls on a small region of the earth. Thus a total eclipse can be observed only within the zone of totality, a very narrow area of the earth (where this shadow falls as the earth rotates). For this reason, total eclipses are rare events in any given geographical area. Much more common are partial eclipses, in which the moon obscures only part of the sun. Observers located in the much broader outer shadow of the moon (the penumbra) see such an eclipse.

Certainly, partial eclipses are interesting, but a total eclipse can be spectacular, not only dramatically darkening the world, but allowing sight of such solar features as feathery prominences, the chromosphere, and, most thrilling of all, the corona. These features are fleeting, since totality lasts only a few minutes at any one observing location.

As mentioned elsewhere in this book, observing the sun directly is very dangerous. Looking at the sun through an unfettered telescope or binoculars will cause irreversible damage to your eyesight. The sun is no more or less dangerous during an eclipse than at any other time; but the point is that looking directly at the sun is always dangerous and harmful.

The sun, during an eclipse or at any time, is most safely observed by projecting its image onto a piece of paper or cardboard. You can project a telescope or binocular image onto a white card held at the correct distance from the eyepiece. But you don't need a telescope or binoculars to project an image. Just make a pinhole in a stiff piece of cardboard and project the pinhole image onto a white card or paper. (By the way: Do not look through the pinhole directly at the sun!)

If you want to look at the sun through your telescope during an eclipse or at another time, purchase a solar filter (glass or Mylar) from any of the major telescope manufacturers. This type of filter attaches to the front of your telescope tube, it does not screw onto the eyepiece.

See Appendix B for the dates of some upcoming eclipses.

This image was generated by the Large Angle and Spectrometric Corona-graph of SOHO. The Solar corona (or crown) can be viewed only if the light from the photosphere is naturally or artificially blocked. The small white circle indicates the size of the solar disk.

(Image from NASA/ESA)

Will the sun eventually evaporate into solar wind? Every second, a million tons of solar substance is emitted as solar wind. Yet less than a tenth of one percent of the sun has been thus spent since the beginning of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

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