Staring into the Sun

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 1998, SUNSPOT, NEW MEXICO - ELEV. 9,250 ft. - Stephen Keil has a Phd. in astrophysics, which means he can do huge math problems in his head - I am sure of this. He puts himself to sleep each night figuring out the hundredth digit of Pi and he could tell you the square root of your telephone number, if you really wanted to know. I bet he can't even look at a doughnut without thinking "hmmm, zero..."

I had the formidable task of touring the National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, with Keil as a guide, and trying to distill the things he told me into something I could present to you. Unfortunately, this required that I understand even a single word of what he told me...

There is only one thing in Keil's working life, one object of his attention, and that object is huge, 109 times as wide as our lowly planet. Keil has a career of studying that big ol' ball of fire in the sky, that mass of gas we call our Sun. What he does on a daily basis may affect each of our lives greatly, so listen up.

This is what our Sun looks like through the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope (each white spot is about the size of Texas.) The right photo shows your average sunspot.

Our Sun is - get this - "an average star of medium size and brightness" according to Observatory literature. Now, if that doesn't humble every being on our planet, consider this; our Sun, the center of our universe, isn't even solid. It is all gas, and you could drive right through the thing, if you had the nerve. OK, very, very dense gas - more dense than any solid we have on Earth, but gas just the same - so wear a helmet.

That big ball of fire is mostly hydrogen gas, with traces of about 90 other elements in the mix. Nuclear fusion is "cooking" the hydrogen into heavier gases, like helium. In fact, they discovered helium on the Sun before they found it on Earth. Don't ask me how and, for heaven sakes, don't ask Keil, unless you have a few light years to listen to the answer while you nod your head like a dumb chicken. All these gases keep fueling nuclear explosions, something which intrigues Keil.

"Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the Sun, But Mama, that's where the fun is..."
Manfred Mann's Earth Band

Want to take a shot at Einstein's theory of relativity? Here's how you can start. Good luck.

Max out all your credit cards on the biggest and best telescope your house can hold, and don't use it.

Don't you dare use your telescope to look at the sun until you modify it somehow, or you'll burn your retina and you'll end up like an angry, old pirate who's been using his sextant too much. "Aye matey, that Sun, she's a real bright."

Keil and his fellow solar scientists use two methods to preserve their eyesight. A spectrograph removes the colors they don't want, so they can see only what they need, sort of like putting on sunglasses. And a coronagraph covers the center of the Sun, leaving only a thin ring on the surface visible.

And they rarely actually look through telescopes - they let digital cameras do that. You can view many of their images on the facility's web site.

These devices are not cheap, and unless you have a Federal budget behind you, you will need to improvise. There is hope, however; on the Sunspot web site. . Click on "Education", then "Book" and then "Telescopes" in the left column. You will find a series of questions people have asked about building telescopes. The questions have been answered in a very down to Earth manner (a little space humor there.)

As a student at Berkley in the late sixties, Stephen Keil earned a Bachelor's degree in physics. A space science teacher inspired him to take his physics studies to the stars, and he went on to earn a doctorate in astrophysics at Boston University. In 1973 he interned at Sunspot and "fell in love with the place."

Sunspot is a beautiful, rustic facility, with about a dozen modest, military buildings set in a peaceful, alpine wilderness, sixteen miles from the quaint mountain resort town of Cloudcroft, and over forty miles from the military town of Alamogordo. Keil couldn't stay in this haven, however, and he worked a few other jobs before returning.

Keil began his astrophysics career with a team of scientists who were trying to revise Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity because of new discoveries about the shape of the Sun. They had discovered that the Sun is not perfectly round, and I guess that set a group of Princeton scientists into a frenzy of doing huge math problems in their heads and gazing at doughnuts. It was here that Keil discovered one thing; he enjoyed staring at the Sun.

"What we've really discovered in the past decade or two is that the interaction between the sun's non-uniform rotation, turbulent motions and magnetic fields drives the many forms of solar activity," says Keil. They are actually probing the interior of the Sun, using seismic techniques similar to earthquake studies on Earth. "We're trying to understand why the output of the sun and the levels of solar activity are constantly changing."

In the late seventies, Keil worked in Australia for a few years, and he returned to Sunspot to raise a family. His wife teaches calculus at Alamogordo High School, their son is a senior at AHS and they have a daughter in college. When he isn't studying the center of our universe, Keil can be found exploring the wilds of the Sacramento range on his mountain bike or on cross country skis.

To work in a place like this, with fewer than 100 residents who are mostly scientists, you don't really have to be a "people person" but it helps. Staying friendly and quiet is a big plus, making enemies is a big minus - with only 74 people in your world, you can't spare many friends. There are a few dozen children living in Sunspot - they are bused to schools down the mountain - and the population tends to stay very constant ("stagnant" Keil puts it.) But these are patient people, studying an object billions of years old and living atop a mountain.

They do like to have fun. Halloween is spooky, but safe in this closed community, and holidays are celebrated with parties and special dinners. You can usually predict who will attend (and probably what they'll be wearing.) The "Peyton Place" syndrome is dampened by the fact that most residents are scientists and are preoccupied with the Ball Of Fire most of the time.

The Sunspotians are not completely isolated, however. The campus is a popular tourist stop, with a busy visitor's center. Also, scientists from around the world visit for weeks at a time to use the facility for their experiments. When Keil wonders if life in this uncommon community is really worth the isolation, all he needs to do is walk behind the Hilltop Dome and take in the view.

The solar observatory was built by the Air Force in 1947 and given to the National Science Foundation in a juggling of budgets in 1976. Keil is actually an Air Force employee.

What is the military's interest in the sun? Easy; communication. That is one huge furnace up there, with - no kidding - nuclear activity going on all day. Just as lightning messes up your TV reception, the Sun can really wreak havoc with long-range communication. It does this by spewing radio waves, x-rays and high-speed atomic particles right at us during events called "flares and solar mass ejections" which are magnetic activity in the solar atmosphere, Keil says.

These flares (like the "eruptive prominence" shown to the right, only smaller) don't affect the average human (just my aunt Karma.) About the only way we know of these flares is by the Northern Lights they create, and by lousy reception on the satellite dish. But millions of us were affected earlier this year when the Galaxy 4 satellite was apparently knocked out by several solar storms, silencing pagers around the country.

I asked Keil what his dream accomplishment would be and, surprisingly, it had nothing to do with pitching a perfect game or saving the lives of millions of people before lunch (oh, those were mine - sorry). His dream? "I'd love to develop a model that can predict, in real time, solar activity." See? I warned you about this guy. Actually, if he could do this, it certainly would help save lives, because our country, and our world, is becoming very dependent upon satellites and radio communication.

Presently, Keil is not even working on solar flares projects - not directly. In science, everything is very slow and the steps are enormous (remember Chemistry class?) He is spending much of his time in a field called "Adaptive Optics" where he is creating better lenses and filters with which to see the Sun. He is so excited about this project, I can hardly get him to sit still long enough for a photograph.

Keil's greatest annoyance is the Earth's atmosphere. Sure, it keeps him from becoming charcoal from exposure to the Sun and I think he appreciates this, but it also blurs the image he sees of the star. They put the observatory where they did to lessen the effect of the atmosphere. Set 9,250 feet above sea level, they cut through a lot of it. The air around here is dry, without the cloudy moisture particles, and it is away from many cities and the pollution they generate. "I would love to put this telescope in space," he says.

Two years ago, he nearly did just that. He used a balloon to float a (much smaller) telescope 120,000 feet above the antarctic circle, flying in an Air Force cargo plane to take readings from the instrument.

Another dream Keil has would be to replicate the nuclear fusion activity here on Earth. "That would be the ideal," he says. "To try to control fusion here on Earth and have a controlled source of energy. Hydrogen is the most abundant element available."

Aerial views of the observatory, borrowed from the NOAO web site. Telescope pages.

Top photo: The Vacuum Tower Telescope, which is taller than a football field is long (two-thirds of it is underground). On right is the Hilltop dome, where they keep a constant watch on the sun.

Lower photo: The John W. Evans Solar facility with two telescopes; a 16" coronagraph and a 12" coelostat telescope.

Stroll around the beautiful observatory grounds, and in certain buildings you will see, on small black and white monitors, images of the Sun, piped in from one of the telescopes. Inside the Hilltop Dome is a huge piece of hardware that is constantly aimed at the Sun (during the day at least) On this are clamped several telescopes and cameras and gizmos with which the scientists keep a record of what our Sun has looked like every minute of every day for the past fifty years (1/900,000th of its life.)

I hesitate to go into much scientific detail about our Sun and the National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, because it is explained very well on the observatory's web site; and also because, as you can guess, I understand very little of it myself. Heck, I thought it was round.

The ride down the mountain on my motorcycle is more frightening than the ride up, with snow and ice still on the shaded switchbacks. As I lose altitude, the air gets warmer and the Sun is begining its descent into the San Andres Mountains. It will come back up tomorrow, and I will be in another state, but in that small alpine village on the edge of our universe, there will be men and women whose lives literally revolve around the Sun.

Check out the Holy Cow! Archives for other flying objects...

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