Solar astronomy is quite simply the study of our sun. While astronomy might reasonably be called the study of the night skies, since the dawn of the earliest civilizations until only relatively recently, solar astronomy has been strictly a daytime job. Studying that most prominent of all stars in our heavens, the one named Sol. The star our world not only orbits, but receives the energy from to support all life on our Earth’s surface; only those deep-dwelling creatures of the sea that feed from vents of heat coming from the Earth’s core, and their predators, don’t need it as a food source, but even they would quickly freeze if it wasn’t there. Sol, “The Sun” or “Our Sun”, is absolutely the most important object in our skies.
All ancient, city-building civilizations were founded on agriculture, and as all farmers and most of the rest of us know, agriculture relies upon the energy provided by the sun. It is no surprise the sun consistently held prominent significance in the ancients’ religious beliefs; that the pantheons of gods devised by the elite of these ancient civilizations were often dominated by a “Father” god who was the sun. Their solar astronomy was of such cultural importance they would build monumental structures to track and record the sun’s passage, usually in combination with studying the moon and other prominent astral bodies in their skies. Agriculture enabled them to live together in the numbers needed to build these astronomical and religious monuments. Scheduling their farming activities such as sowing and harvesting for each food crop by the movement of the sun, as determined by their priest/astronomers, improved their agricultural success.
With the development of glass lenses and telescopes, astronomy expanded quite rapidly; with the addition of suitable filtering methods, so has solar astronomy. From simply observing the position of the sun, it became possible to observe more detail about the sun itself. With the positioning of satellites above the Earth’s atmosphere, the use of radioastronomy and high-speed data connections, much more detail is possible and studies can be carried out anywhere in the world at any time of day or night.
Solar astronomers today still track and study the sun’s position in relation to the Earth and the Moon, determining the timing of solar eclipses, both in the future and the past. But they also study the structure of the sun; its chemical and physical composition, the corona that surrounds it, the solar atmosphere that extends right out beyond Pluto’s orbit, the causes of solar flares, sunspots, sunspot groupings and the filamentary faculae we can only see at the sun’s observable edges. This knowledge is important to all of us.
Solar flares can reach Earth’s orbit, increasing radiation levels and disrupting communications to a degree that would seriously endanger insufficiently shielded astronauts or potential orbiting human habitations of the future. Sunspots are cooler, and therefore darker, spots that bubble to the surface of the sun related to strong magnetic fields; they also have an impact on modern human methods of communication, increasing static and therefore data transmission error rates.
By studying Sol, the star closest to us, we can learn much about stars in general, helping astronomers studying the billions of stars more distant from us. Studying those distant stars in turn gives us some idea of what to expect from our sun and other near stars in the future; an awareness of stellar life cycles. Our sun’s aging is unlikely to impact us significantly for millions of years, but it will eventually. Will humanity still be around in a recognizable form when that time comes?