STARING AT THE SUN: One man’s obsession with our star


By Jason Hawk - jhawk@civitasmedia.com



<p style="text-align: right;">Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times John O’Neal shows off his backyard observatory where he uses some incredible equipment to watch the sun. He’ll make telescopes available to the public this Sunday.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times John O’Neal shows off his backyard observatory where he uses some incredible equipment to watch the sun. He’ll make telescopes available to the public this Sunday.


Astronomy was, for centuries, a hobby of the elite.

“But for a simple man to take his telescope out and see something amazing, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars,” says Amherst Township resident John O’Neal.

A member of the Black River Astronomical Society for more than four decades, O’Neal spends his free time watching the heavens from an observatory in his own backyard on Taylor Street.

The PVC dome was specially made in Canada and houses an incredible array of star-gazing equipment.

We were awed Monday as O’Neal pointed a shielded scope at Sol — our own sun — to see bright flares thrust from the gigantic nuclear furnace and into the depths of space.

Normally, looking directly at the sun through a telescope would mean blindness, severe burns, or even death. O’Neal’s setup uses the same technology that shielded space shuttles to make up-close sun-spotting possible.

He’ll make the telescope available from noon to 5 p.m. this Sunday at Amherst city hall for the public to view the sun.

The effort is part of a BRAS and International Sidewalk Astronomers event in locations across the country. It celebrates John Dobson Month, named for a scientist who in the 1950s built newer, less expensive telescopes that made amateur star-gazing accessible to all.

Loading large telescopes in a van, Dobson launched a cross-country tour to open the skies to the public.

“He would go to Main Street in New York City and set up a telescope. He was a great popularizer of astronomy,” said O’Neal.

The Amherst man’s long love affair with the stars began with the Space Race as the Russians launched Laika the dog into space on Nov. 3, 1957; as John Glenn became the first human to orbit the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962; as the Voyager I was launched Sept. 5, 1977 on its journey out of the solar system (it finally left the solar system in September 2013).

“There was so much happening in space. So in 1970, I bought my first telescope,” O’Neal said.

Staring upward doesn’t necessarily mean a big hit to your wallet.

O’Neal recommends that beginners buy a pair of binoculars — a simple 5×35 magnification will do at under $100.

Point them at the northeastern sky over the next month to catch a glimpse of the Andromeda galaxy. Saturn will also be clear in the southwestern sky, its rings visible with little aid.

There are also free smart phone apps available to point out constellations, stars, and planets.

Meanwhile, more experienced astronomers will be searching for something dangerous.

In 1859, the sun spewed out a coronal mass ejection toward the Earth. The solar emissions were so intense that they caught telegraph wires on fire and burned telephone poles.

There’s worry now, according to O’Neal, of another such event that would devastate electronics equipment, setting life on the planet back 100 years.

“We watch the sun every day and see these coronal mass ejections all the time. We wonder when the next time will be that it’s going to get us,” he said.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times John O’Neal shows off his backyard observatory where he uses some incredible equipment to watch the sun. He’ll make telescopes available to the public this Sunday.

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Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times John O’Neal shows off his backyard observatory where he uses some incredible equipment to watch the sun. He’ll make telescopes available to the public this Sunday.

By Jason Hawk

jhawk@civitasmedia.com