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What are the uses of a laser pointer in astronomy?

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Quick Answer

Laser pointers are used by astronomers to point to notable locations in the sky. They are popular tools for public stargazing with groups because they can easily direct the attention of the whole group to a particular constellation or celestial object. Laser pointers are also used as finders, tools that locate celestial objects and help an astronomer point the telescope toward the correct location for closer observation.

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Full Answer

The main kind of laser pointer used by astronomers both as a public stargazing tool and as a finder is the green laser. They are popular because, although they are normally inexpensive, they are capable of putting out a highly intense light beam that can be visible for hundreds of yards. This allows them to point very accurately at objects high above the ground. They are preferred to the even more common and less expensive red laser pointer because of a quirk of human anatomy. The human eye is particularly sensitive to green light, so green lasers are perceived as brighter than red lasers regardless of power setting.

Green laser pointers of the kind used by astronomers typically output 5 milliwatts or less of power. However, because laser light is highly concentrated into narrow beams, that amount of power is hazardous to the human eye if viewed directly. The beams themselves are not dangerous when viewed from the side, as they are when finding or pointing. However, when viewed head-on, they can cause temporary blindness, even at a great distance. The danger of strong laser light being pointed directly into pilots' eyes has led to numerous restrictions and guidelines on the use of these astronomical tools in many countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia.

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