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Lack of sun doesn't stop solar program

The sun burns 27 million degrees hot at its core, creates a solar wind that blows earthward at 22,369 miles per hour with gusts up to 1,864,113 miles per hour and has reached middle age at 4.5 billion years — but it can’t shine through a layer of condensed atmospheric water vapor.

Steve Layman, a volunteer with the Charlottesville Astronomical Society, brought a slide show and solar viewing equipment to the Ivy Creek Natural Area for a “First Friday” look at the star of the solar system.

The plan was to explain the sun in theory and then let interested people peep at it through special filters and equipment on the telescope.

Then clouds arrived.

“It’s like this about half the time,” said Layman, who taught music in Albemarle County schools from 1977 to 2008, including directing bands at Walton Middle School for eight years and 23 years leading the Western Albemarle High School Band, is an ardent amateur astronomer.

“I try to add in some information and talk a little bit more in detail about the sun, when the sun doesn’t show up. There’s only so much you can do without it,” Layman said.

With a heavy and gray overcast blotting out the ball of burning gas in the sky, only five people showed for the event, including a natural area staff member, two members of the news media and a University of Virginia alumni and her guest from Denmark.

“We were just out on a bit of a vacation and thought we’d take hike [in the natural area] and saw the program and thought we’d stop in,” said Jeanette Valentine.

“We’re just out relaxing,” agreed Lars Asmussen. “It seemed interesting.”

Layman came to Friday’s scheduled noon discourse with models that included a mixing bowl-size cross-section model of Sol that resembled half of an over-sized pink grapefruit, a special solar-viewing telescope and a thorough a PowerPoint presentation.

The scheduled guest of honor was under the weather, however, and couldn’t make it.

“We come out here on the first Friday of every month and alternate looking at the night sky or at the sun and talk about astronomy, but it seems like it’s always cloudy at night on the night sky dates and cloudy during the day on the solar viewing dates,” Layman said, shaking his head. “Sometimes it seems like the weather in Charlottesville is just getting crappier, but it may just be luck.”

Layman said having special equipment for viewing the sun is important, even it is just Mylar eclipse viewing spectacles used for the last solar eclipse in 2017 in downtown Charlottesville.

“We were going to look at the sun a couple of different ways to block about 95% of the sun’s energy,” Layman said, noting that there are glass filters that attach to special telescopes and a white filter device. “You do not want to look at the sun without protection. You don’t want to look at it through binoculars or something like that because it can burn a hole in the retina of your eye.”

Layman provided a few fascinating facts about the sun, including its 92.9 million-mile distance from the Earth and the fact that if you drive 93 miles an hour for 100 years, you’d eventually arrive at the solar system’s hottest spot.

Some of the information was a bit disconcerting.

“At that distance from the Earth, it takes the light a very short time to make it to the surface,” he said. “That means that if the sun did go out, it wouldn’t go dark on Earth for about eight minutes.”

If that doomsday scenario did take place, which it shouldn’t for another few billion years, the sun would shed much of its gaseous mass and become a white dwarf. The process of spewing the remnants of its burning gas into space would create a planetary nebula and pretty much fry the Earth to a crackly crunch.

Layman also recommended the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the space agency’s Parker Solar Probe websites for people interested in learning more about center of the solar system.

No matter what experts predict to happen with the solar system, he said, there is always more to know.

“We don’t understand a lot of things about the sun, yet.”


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