Drawing reveals white solar flare observed in 1886

Nature of teen's observation wasn't recognized until now.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Oct 24, 2017
A teenage amateur astronomer viewed a rare white solar flare from Spain on September 10, 1886, and accurately drew an image of what he saw that survives to this day.

Originally published in the French journal L'Astronomie, the drawing is discussed in a paper co-authored by Jorge Sanchez Almeida of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) and published in the journal Solar and Stellar Astrophysics.

Juan Valderrama y Aguilar, who was 17 in 1886, discussed his observation of the rare solar flare in greater detail in his private journal, Almeida noted.

White solar flares are flares of extremely high energy that produce flashes in visible light as well as in ultraviolet light and X-rays.

"White-light flares correspond to the most extreme of this phenomenon, where so much energy is dumped into the corona and chromosphere [of the Sun] that the energy propagates downward to the photosphere, heating it up, and producing the excess brightness that we observe in white light," Almeida explained.

While most solar flares emit some visible light, sensitive equipment is usually needed to detect it. Yet Valderrama successfully saw it using just a 2.5-inch- (six-cm-) diameter telescope.

In his journal, he describes the sunspot from which the flare erupted.

"A huge, beautiful sunspot was formed from yesterday to today. By looking at it carefully, I noticed an extraordinary phenomenon on her, on the penumbra to the west of the nucleus, and almost in contact with it, a very bright object was distinguishable, producing a shadow clearly visible on the sunspot penumbra. This object had an almost circular shape, and a light beam came out from its eastern part that crossed the sunspot to the south of the nucleus, producing a shadow on the penumbra that was lost in the large mass of faculae surrounding the eastern extreme of the sunspot," he wrote.

Faculae are bright regions on the Sun's surface linked to sunspots.

The first sightings of solar flares were made by British astronomer Richard Carrington in 1859 and by Italian astronomer Pietro Angelo Secchi in 1872.

"It is extraordinary that in Spain of the 19th century, a 17-year-old kid would make such a scientific discovery, and it is even more impressive that he had the courage of submitting it for publication to a foreign scientific journal," Almeida emphasized.

Almeida and study co-author Manuel Vazquez are writing a biography of Valderrama, who directed the meteorological observatory in Madrid.

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