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25 June 2004

The Sun and Sky Monitoring Station

Forrest M. Mims III


Reviewed by Sheldon Greaves, Ph.D.

(Click here to order online)

Anyone who is looking for a good avenue into doing science would do well to study a natural phenomenon that is easily accessible. For that reason, among many others, the Sun and Sky Monitoring Station kit by Forrest Mims is an excellent product for beginning scientists, seasoned amateurs (or even professionals) looking for a new challenge, or someone trying to come up with a reasonably self-contained science fair project. Briefly stated, this kit gives one the instrumentation needed to track accurately the total sunlight in a given time period, measure haze and water vapor in the atmosphere.

Sadly, however, Radio Shack, the original manufacturer of this product, has elected to stop making them. SAS has managed to get access to some of the remaining copies, which we are selling on our online store. It isn't clear whether a new manufacturer will be willing to pick up this product, so this may be the last chance ever to get one of these excellent products.

Make no mistake; this kit is not a toy. You can do serious, significant science with this device. One young man, Lans Martin, (see www.sas.org/virtualConference2004/mims.html) used one of these kits in a science fair project to validate measurements of haze made by the MODIS instrument on NASA's Terra satellite. Actually, the whole field of measuring atmospheric phenomena dealing with haze, water vapor, smoke, etc. is a rich area of potential inquiry for amateur scientists.

The Sun and Sky Monitoring Station includes 4 light channels, removable collimator assembly, bubble level, compass, 3.5-digit readout, sun angle indicator, shadow band, sky filter and a 64-page operator's manual and workbook. Click image to enlarge.

The Monitoring Station uses an innovative application of LEDs as light sensors, an application pioneered by Forrest in the early 1990's. The sensors measure solar intensity within certain spectral bands and convert the reading into a voltage that appears in a readout window. By configuring the monitoring station in different ways, many different kinds of measurements are possible.

Users will welcome the excellent documentation that comes with this kit. Because the value--to say nothing of the process--of Sun and sky monitoring might be new to many people, the accompanying workbook goes into considerable detail explaining what gets measured and why it is important. Periodic exercises and quizzes test the reader's knowledge. Also included is a data sheet that can be photocopied and used to record readings. The workbook also contains many excellent suggestions for experiments, so one shouldn't lack for ideas, especially if you're doing or assisting a student with a science project.

Incidentally, this is the time to be thinking about science fair projects. A project started over the summer will have lots of great data to work with and be leaps
and bounds ahead of the last minute add-water-and-stir-variety
projects. Personally, I would love to see SAS have a network of these units taking and recording regular measurements. Clearly, if one person working alone can do good science using one of these units, how much more could a coordinated network of observers accomplish?

Forrest M. Mims III was paid by Radio Shack to develop the Sun and Sky Monitoring Station. He receives nothing from sales of the product by the Society for Amateur Scientists.

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