The recent Transit of Mercury was a pretty big deal for a lot of reasons. I won’t go into too much detail about the actual event (we covered that pretty well already, on the B&H in Space page) but I’m talking about our coverage of the event. B&H partnered with Meade Instruments and the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York to do a morning of community outreach and programs at our Event Space studio (watch it here on Facebook if you missed it).
We had some great speakers and presenters and the aaa.org set up viewing spots all over the city. I was at the East River Park, in lower Manhattan, with some of the members, where joggers, power walkers, business people, and some New Yorkers just going for a nice early morning stroll were welcome to step up to one of the telescopes, look through an eyepiece, and have the rare opportunity to look directly at a star and see another planet.
We had many types of telescopes represented by many manufacturers, but there were only two dedicated solar scopes. There was the venerable Meade Coronado 40mm PST (Personal Solar Telescope) set up on a basic photo head and tripod that the aaa.org brought… and then there was the scope that Meade lent to us: The newly redesigned and reengineered 70mm Double-Stacked SolarMax III hydrogen-alpha (H-a) solar scope, sitting on the rock-steady LX85 Equatorial GoTo mount and, for power, the company also provided an LXPS7 12 VDC 7 Ah Power Station.
If you’re an amateur astronomer like me, you’ve probably been a bit intimidated by the thought of solar viewing. When the 2017 Solar Eclipse occurred, I produced a lot of content for it and got over my trepidation, and now I’m a big fan. Also, in a broader sense, the eclipse sparked a lot more interest in solar viewing gear, which has led to a great deal of innovation—which is how I came to be looking through the new SolarMax III (SMIII) for the Transit.
The original SolarMax design had the hydrogen-alpha etalon (solar filter) integrated into the middle of the optical tube, making it a dedicated solar scope. The new design moves the etalon and RichView tuners to the front of the optical tube as a separate unit. By making the solar filter system an independent unit, you are able to simply unscrew it, leaving you with a fast 70mm f/5.7 achromat refractor that you can use for nighttime lunar and planetary viewing or astrophotography.
Speaking to its astrograph use, the large drawtube and 2" holder, along with its 10:1 dual focusing system, allows you to mount heavier imaging rigs on it and maximize light throughput so today’s larger camera sensors will be completely covered and you avoid vignetting the scene. All in all, the SMIII produces rich and vibrant views of the sun that allow you to tune the etalon manually and pull out granulation details on the surface or highlight prominences protruding from the edge of the solar disk. There is an assumption that people buying these solar scopes are adding to their existing inventory of optical tubes or building a customized rig à la carte; Meade offers the whole line of SolarMax III scopes without mounts and with very few accessories—pretty much just a solar finder and a low-power eyepiece—so you’ll need a mount that has a Vixen-style rail. The good news, though, is that you can use any astronomical eyepiece and Barlow in the scope for solar viewing.
The LX85 mount was as rock-solid a platform as you could want and, when we were at the East River, the brisk breeze blowing off the water didn’t affect the view at all—and with its 33-pound payload capacity, I didn’t even need to use the included counterweight for the SM III to move smoothly and easily. Carrying the mount and stainless steel tripod on my shoulder from the street, over the pedestrian walkway, down the amphitheater stairs, to the water was a bit of a strain, so the solid stability comes at the expense of portability—but in a good way. When I had it at my house, extracting it from my garage onto my driveway or around to my backyard took no effort at all, and I welcomed its resistance to the wind. The AudioStar GoTo controller was simple and intuitive to use, with an easy-to-read display and buttons that were easy to find and manipulate when I had my eye on the eyepiece and I needed to make adjustments without looking at the keys.
For anyone who’s interested getting this rig (or one like it with the AudioStar or AutoStar controller), there are a few tricks that you need to know—and this might be useful if you’re new to the Meade controller for nighttime viewing, as well. First, the sun has been removed from its solar system option in the GoTo menu, as has the solar rate been taken out from its tracking options (leaving you with Sidereal, Lunar, and Custom). I found this odd, from one of the leading manufacturers of solar telescopes, and it took me quite a bit of time to get the custom tracking right. Also, by default, the controller is set to Terrestrial tracking mode, not Astronomical, so even when you perform your nighttime alignment sequence the mount won’t start to track. Finally, even if you have the tracking mode set to Astronomical and then manually move to the target you want to view (be it the sun, moon, or planet), the mount won’t start tracking unless you perform an alignment. For solar viewing, this means you need to do a “mock” alignment where you can’t see the reference stars the controller selects before it will start tracking at your custom rate. This seemed like numerous steps that could be easily remedied by having it just start to track when it’s turned on and have the solar stuff in the controller, but turned off for safety reasons, and make the user turn it on manually (after acknowledging the dangers of looking at the sun.)
So that’s it. The 2019 Transit of Mercury is in the bag and it won’t happen again until November of 2032. Thank you to everyone who stopped by the Amateur Astronomers Association viewing parties throughout New York City, and for tuning in for the Event Space programs. A special thanks goes out to all the aaa members, and to Meade, for the cool gear. You all made this event a success, and I promise that we are planning a super-cool event in the Spring of 2020 that will be a ton of fun.
Check out more solar articles, 101s, and How-To articles at B&H in Space.