Our sun, the star at the center of our Solar System, is a fantastic subject for both viewing and photographing and humans have been viewing it since the beginning of time. A special form of solar viewing is the solar eclipse. There are few experiences in nature as awe inspiring as an eclipse—solar or lunar—when the Earth, sun, and moon align. If you want to observe and study the sun, B&H has what you need to do it safely and do it well.
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 incredible views. From the chromosphere, corona, and coronal mass ejections, to sunspots, flares, and filaments, the sun offers amazing things to experience.
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. For more safety information, please read this article.
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.
Shades, Goggles, and Binoculars
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.
Solar viewing eyewear comes in all different shapes and sizes and you can find our complete collection here.
Finally, in this category, are solar binoculars. These are conventional-looking binoculars, but have solar filters installed on the front objectives. Check out our options at this link.
Dedicated solar binoculars are great for everyday solar observation—such as seeing phenomena like sunspots—but, you can also attach solar filters to your favorite pair of birding or travel binoculars and enjoy the same (or better) views.
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 is 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.
If you have a mount or photo tripod, you can get just an 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.
Some “solar telescopes” are standard scopes that include a solar filter for use with solar observing. With the filter removed, they can be used for celestial observations at night and are, of course, more versatile than a dedicated solar scope in that way.
For our complete line-up of solar viewing telescopes, please click here.
Solar Filters for Astronomical Telescopes
As you can see when looking at the various types of solar filters for telescopes, there is a wide range of designs and price points. Some complex filters use an electronic temperature tuning system to modify conventional refractors, Schmidt-Cassegrains, and Maksutov-Cassegrain OTAs for solar viewing. These usually install in the focuser draw tube and the eyepiece goes into the filter. Some models are tuned to H-alpha, with others tuned to Calcium-K and Sodium-D.
Also available are 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 simplest solar viewing filters for conventional telescopes, spotting scopes, or binoculars are are those that slip over the objective lenses. They are available in different sizes to accommodate different size scopes. Of course—safety first—when using slip-on filters, be sure they are safely secured to your viewing device and cannot fall off unintentionally.
Our complete selection of solar viewing filters for scopes can be browsed here.
Grab Some Gear
The sun offers an incredible array of ever-changing sights and experiences to which nothing in traditional astronomy can compare. Anyone, with the right gear, can 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 to research-quality precision-tuned instruments 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.
Do you have questions about solar viewing or solar eclipse viewing? Engage us in the Comments section, below, and we can help.
For more about solar viewing and solar eclipse viewing gear, click on this link.