Eclipse glasses are good for more than just solar eclipses. You can use them at other times of the year to safely view the sun and, if you’re lucky, see some action. This is a good time to test that out. NASA called out the appearance of an “enormous sunspot” moving across the sun on February 9.
NASA’s sun-focused X account shared a video of the sunspot, which looks like a small dark stain against the yellow of our neighborhood star. “If you have eclipse glasses and good vision, you might be able to see it without magnification,” the agency tweeted while warning viewers not to look directly at the sun without proper eye protection.
The main sunspot is wider than Earth, but it looks small compared to the enormousness of the sun. If you can’t see it with your eclipse glasses, don’t be tempted to grab your binoculars. “Do not look at the sun through a camera lens, telescope, binoculars or any other optical device while wearing eclipse glasses or using a handheld solar viewer—the concentrated solar rays will burn through the filter and cause serious eye injury,” NASA cautioned in an eclipse safety guide.
I tested out NASA’s instructions with a pair of eclipse glasses and was able to see the largest, darkest spot without any special equipment other than the glasses. As the video shows, sunspots rotate, so check back later if you can’t see it right away.
The video comes from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft that launched in 2010. SDO monitors the sun’s activity and documents its many moods, from sunspots to solar flares. The sunspot is impressive, but the sun also just kicked out one of its strongest solar flares in years.
A sunspot doesn’t have the fireworks-like wow factor of a big flare, but it’s a fascinating phenomenon. The spots appear darker than the surrounding material because they are cooler. They can have varying lifespans. “Sunspots can change continuously and may last for only a few hours to days; or even months for the more intense groups,” said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in an explainer.
Sunspots and solar flares are connected. “Sunspots are often precursors to solar flares—intense outbursts of energy from the surface of the sun—so monitoring sunspots is important to understanding why and how flares occur,” NASA said. Flares are of particular interest to Earth dwellers. The energy bursts can disrupt communications and power systems on and around our planet.
The sun’s recent spots and outbursts are tied into its cycle. It’s currently heading toward “solar maximum,” a peak level of activity. Scientists expect the sun will reach maximum sometime in 2024. We can expect more sunspots to go along with it.
Keep your eclipse glasses handy. There’s a total solar eclipse on tap for April 8 with excellent viewing opportunities in multiple states across the U.S. In the meantime, you can use your glasses to track sunspots. Hit play on “King of Pain” by The Police and enjoy the views.