Solar eclipse: Eye health warning

The only time that the Sun can be viewed safely with the naked eye is during a total eclipse, when the Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. It is never safe to look at a partial or annular eclipse, or the partial phases of a total solar eclipse, without the proper equipment and techniques. Even when 99% of the Sun’s surface (the photosphere) is obscured during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, the remaining crescent Sun is still intense enough to cause a retinal burn, even though illumination levels are comparable to twilight [Chou, 1981, 1996; Marsh, 1982]. Failure to use proper observing methods may result in permanent eye damage or severe visual loss. This can have important adverse effects on career choices and earning potential, since it has been shown that most individuals who sustain eclipse-related eye injuries are children and young adults [Penner and McNair, 1966; Chou and Krailo, 1981].

The same techniques for observing the Sun outside of eclipses are used to view and photograph annular solar eclipses and the partly eclipsed Sun [Sherrod, 1981; Pasachoff & Menzel 1992; Pasachoff & Covington, 1993; Reynolds & Sweetsir, 1995]. The safest and most inexpensive method is by projection. A pinhole or small opening is used to form an image of the Sun on a screen placed about a meter behind the opening. Multiple openings in perfboard, in a loosely woven straw hat, or even between interlaced fingers can be used to cast a pattern of solar images on a screen. A similar effect is seen on the ground below a broad-leafed tree: the many “pinholes” formed by overlapping leaves creates hundreds of crescent-shaped images. Binoculars or a small telescope mounted on a tripod can also be used to project a magnified image of the Sun onto a white card. All of these methods can be used to provide a safe view of the partial phases of an eclipse to a group of observers, but care must be taken to ensure that no one looks through the device. The main advantage of the projection methods is that nobody is looking directly at the Sun. The disadvantage of the pinhole method is that the screen must be placed at least a meter behind the opening to get a solar image that is large enough to see easily.

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