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On August 21, 2017, North America will be treated to the First of a Lifetime event—a complete solar eclipse. It will track from coast to coast and 10 states will be in its path (for details, see the B&H Explora article I co-wrote with my colleague, Todd Vorenkamp, Mark Your Calendars: North American Solar eclipse 2017), and millions of people will have a chance to view it. You might be asking yourself, “Why are you writing this more than eight months before the event?” Great question… and the answer is this: Eclipse-viewing optics can also be used for general solar observing, so anything you get now can be used any time. I wrote up top that this is a First of a Lifetime event, because seven years later, on April 8, 2024, we get ANOTHER eclipse, which takes a virtually mirror course to the one this year, so you can buy gear now and it’ll STILL be useful for the next seven years! For further reading, see the B&H Explora article Solar and Solar Eclipse Viewing 101.
OK, so besides the eclipse, why solar observing? First of all, the Sun is ALWAYS there. Every day. Guaranteed. Other celestial bodies, such as planets or meteor showers, or even the phase of the Moon, come and go in cycles—some can require months or years of waiting. Not the Sun. The Sun rises every morning. Next is the convenience: Conventional astronomy requires you to stay up late, throwing your sleep cycles off, especially, as just mentioned, if you’ve been waiting years for an event. Finally, the views: Since solar observing has typically been relegated to a very niche market, there aren’t a lot of people who truly understand the awe-inspiring views. From the chromosphere, corona, and coronal mass ejections, to sunspots, flares, and filaments, the Sun offers amazing things to experience.
Before we get to the gear, I feel the need for a disclaimer. NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT CERTIFIED SOLAR VIEWING INSTRUMENTS. I know it might sound like a trope, but looking at the Sun for even a second will (not might—WILL) cause irreparable harm up to and including blindness. Extreme caution must be observed, especially when observing with children.
Now, on to the gear. For the scope of this piece, we’re going to go in order, from the most basic all the way up to research-grade gear for observing our closest star.
The most basic piece of solar observing equipment is the solar shade. Made of heavy-stock paper or cardboard, the “lens” is mylar, which blocks more than 99.99% of visible light plus UV and IR. Vixen Optics makes this version that comes individually, and Celestron makes a similar model, part of its EclipSmart line that comes in a 4-pack or 50-pack (for schools or astronomy clubs). Building on that, Celestron also has an 8-piece observing and imaging kit that includes four solar shades, a pair of solar glasses (think sunglasses specifically for looking at the Sun), a solar photo filter, and a couple of accessories.
Finally, in this category, are solar binoculars. These are conventional-looking binoculars, but have solar filters installed on the front objectives. Offered by Celestron and Lunt Solar Systems, they come in a variety of configurations, including 10x25 and 10x42.
Since these optics have low or no magnification, you’ll mostly just see the Sun’s disk with very little detail. These optics are for introductory users and especially useful for the eclipse.
The two main players in the consumer solar telescope market are Coronado (a subsidiary of Meade Instruments) and Lunt Solar Systems. A dedicated solar scope is built like a traditional refractor style, but with purpose-built filters (called etalons), and usually with a special system that allows you to tune, or isolate, the wavelength for which the scope has been designed. The most popular wavelength is Hydrogen-alpha (H-alpha) because this the broadest wavelength and allows you to see the largest variety of details. Other wavelengths include Calcium-K and Sodium-D. Each wavelength reveals different aspects of the Sun.
Because of various factors, such as atmospheric interferences, you will often need to tune the etalon(s) to get the wavelength isolated correctly. The number of etalons, the size of the blocking filters, the tuning mechanism (or lack of it), and the aperture all affect the image that is produced. The more filters and the finer the tuning, the more you’ll be able to tease out details on the surface and filaments that are otherwise impossible to resolve.
The Coronado line has been around for years, and offered in 40mm, 60mm, and 90mm apertures. These scopes all view in the H-alpha wavelength, with a conventional tilt-tuning system where the etalon is physically tilted for tuning. This is a simple and effective system, but it can cause distortion if tuned too heavily. These are offered in various configurations, including single and double-stacked etalons and blocking filters of various sizes. If you have a mount or photo tripod, you can get just the optical tube assembly (OTA), and if you need a complete rig, there are kits with motorized GoTo mounts that will track the Sun for you—especially helpful if you want to image or photograph the Sun. The GoTo mount is compatible with many other OTAs so you can also use it for conventional astronomical telescopes with full GoTo and tracking.
Lunt offers a step-up in capabilities from the Coronado. You can get OTAs in conventional tilt systems, but this company has solved the distortion issue through the use of a pressure tuner. Inside the optical tube there is a sealed section, and when you tune the scope you increase and decrease the pressure (causing the air to become more or less dense) in the sealed portion to isolate the wavelength. This results in a clearer image without the distortion. Lunt offers apertures from 50mm up to 152mm in tilt or pressure-tuned, single- or double-etalon, OTA-only or OTA kits. Again, the models with the GoTo mounts can also be used for conventional astronomy by swapping out the solar scope with a nighttime OTA.
In addition to Coronado and Lunt, Celestron makes another appearance with its most basic telescope offering with the EclipSmart 50mm solar scope, which distinguishes itself as a full observational platform complete with OTA, eyepiece, and tripod—and it all fits inside the included backpack for optimized portability. One of my personal favorite manufacturers, iOptron, offers three iterations of its Solar 60 scope. They all come with the Cube-E GoTo mount and tripod, but it’s the options that separate the three models. You can get the GPS version for precision setup, the GPS mount with an eyepiece imaging camera, or just the mount and tripod with the imaging camera (no GPS). While the Solar 60 doesn’t have a tuning system, the front solar filter unscrews from the dew shield and it can then be used as a conventional scope—increasing its usability.
Daystar Filters offers a conventional astronomical refractor bundled with one of its Quark solar filters (see below). The first one is the Chromosphere Quark that is tuned to reveal the surface of the chromosphere, and the second is the Prominence Quark, which is tuned slightly differently for the details of the chromosphere that are seen projecting from the disk and viewed against the blackness of space behind it.
In a class all by themselves are Daystar Filters. Using an electronic temperature tuning system, Daystar offers a variety of solar filters that are used to modify conventional refractors, Schmidt-Cassegrains, and Maksutov-Cassegrain OTAs for solar viewing. This manufacturer’s Quark simply installs in the focuser draw tube and the eyepiece goes into the Quark. As mentioned above, there are two primary models—Chromosphere and Prominence—both tuned to H-alpha, with others tuned to Calcium-K and Sodium-D. Another product line from Daystar is the Ion. These use a temperature-tuner that is electronically controlled using a digital system for ultra-precision bandwidth tuning.
Leading the pack for Daystar is the Quantum line. Employing the same tuning system as the Ion, the Quantum is ideal for observation and imaging, and is offered in Hydrogen-alpha, Calcium-K, and Sodium-D to give you the full spectrum of wavelengths from which to choose. The H-alpha versions come tuned for various bandwidths, from 0.3-0.8 Angstroms, along the wavelength to allow for focused observation on specific areas of interest. What sets this line apart from others is that it is offered in a standard grade for consumer use and in a research grade for institutions, and being outfitted with an RS-232 port, these filters can be wired to a computer for remote tuning control.
Lunt and Coronado also make an appearance here with non-tunable eyepiece filters. Offered in many configurations and combo kits, and tuned to various wavelengths, these are also used to convert conventional telescopes into solar scopes.
The Sun offers an incredible array of ever-changing sights and experiences to which nothing in traditional astronomy can compare. As we, as a continent, prepare for the solar eclipse in August, take some time now to get to know our star, and all the incredible things it has to show us. In the realm of solar viewing, there are endless options available to you—from paper solar shades for $15 to research-quality precision-tuned instruments that can run upwards of $13,500—it all depends on your level of interest and budget. Now grab some gear, exercise caution to protect your eyes, and get out there and start observing the Sun.
Share your solar-observation experiences below, in the Comments section.
For the quickest way to get your solar viewing and solar eclipse gear, click on this link!