The only time people think about looking at the sun on purpose is during a beautiful sunset or during a solar eclipse. Otherwise, it is advised to steer clear of looking at the sun and for good reason. Looking at the sun can permanently damage your vision.
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In 2020, a new probe was launched to observe the sun and give us some new insights into how the surface of the sun looks and behaves. Many people are excited to discover what the Solar Orbiter will see during its mission. Did you know that you can also get a telescope to observe the surface of the sun?
Everyone knows about traditional telescopes that view the stars and planets using basic magnification principles but there are ways for a telescope to be modified to be able to safely look at the sun. These are called Personal Solar Telescopes ore PSTs and are available online for varying amounts of money.
Here are the basics of how solar telescopes work and some of the best one’s available online today.
Personal Solar Telescope Basics
The biggest difference between solar telescopes and traditional night sky telescopes is the inclusion of solar blockers and filters in the solar scopes. It is important to note that without proper solar blockers inside of a telescope, you can and will damage your eyesight if you attempt to look at the sun. DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN WITH ANY MAGNIFYING OPTICAL DEVICE UNLESS YOU KNOW 100% THAT IT HAS THE PROPER EQUIPMENT TO DO SO SAFELY. Failure to do so will cause eye damage.
Get The Complete System
If you are interested in viewing the sun with a telescope it is the best and safest option to get an all in one system that is designed to do so. The all-in-one solar telescopes come with non-removable solar filters and blockers. This distinction is key because these are the most important parts of a solar telescope.
I would not trust a telescope with removable solar attachments for the simple fact that forgetting one of them, even a single time, could be disastrous. With the all in one telescope, you never have to worry about remember to properly attach solar viewing gear to look at the sun. It eliminates any room for catastrophic error.
In addition to that, all in one solar telescope kits also are designed and built to view the sun. This means that you are not simply attaching a filter to a telescope designed to look at dim deep space objects but you are getting a device built specifically to do this task which will enhance the experience from top to bottom and give you unique high-quality views of the surface of the sun.
There are solar filters, eyepieces, and blockers on the market that can be attached to a traditional telescope but I would avoid them. That is not to say that there are not quality ones out there that do what they say they do but for anyone just starting out I would start with a complete system so that you know what you are getting.
The majority of quality, all-in-one solar telescopes today run on a hydrogen-alpha blocking system that creates a safe and stunning platform from which to view the sun.
Hydrogen Alpha Filters
The consensus in the amateur solar astronomy community is that hydrogen-alpha blockers are the best on the market right now. Instead of filtering out light to improve contrast while looking at the sun these highly scientific and modern filters go far beyond that. Using highly specialized technology, these filters are full systems that are designed to allow only the very best visible light into the eyepiece to see.
Using an internal etalon system, hydrogen-alpha filters reduce all visible light down to a single extremely focused bandwidth. This shows up to the viewer as a deep red color that is visible to our eyes. This allows the sun to be viewed in a completely safe wavelength that still shows the structure and detail of the star.
These are very common on all in one solar telescope because they come designed and prepped with the internal etalon systems that all work together to give a perfectly safe and amazing viewing experience.
An etalon is a system that only allows a specific wavelength of light through. They work by putting two reflective surfaces, usually very thin mirrors, next to each other. Then they are calibrated so that only light that is in resonance with the mirrors is allowed to pass through the space between. They are used to calibrate things that require a very specific wavelength of light such as lasers and solar telescopes.
They were designed at the end of the 19th century by a pair of French gentlemen named Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot. Sometimes etalons are referred to as Fabry-Perot interferometers but they called their invention an etalon which is derived from the French word for standard because only a set standard of light was to pass through their invention at any given time.
The rise of etalons in everyday science allows them to be put into solar telescopes to be used in conjunction with hydrogen-alpha blocking systems. The ability to design etalons that only allow a very specific range of wavelengths through the hydrogen-alpha blockers allows a layperson to get a detailed view of the surface of the sun from their backyard.
What Can You See?
As the name suggests, these telescopes are designed to look at the sun. During the day, the sun doesn’t look like much because it is a flat bright disk that cannot be looked at directly. People wear sunglasses and divert their gaze to keep the sun out of sight and out of mind most of the time.
However, if the sun is filtered and viewed properly you can find that the sun hides a lot of amazing things behind its brightness. With a solar telescope, you will be able to see the sun’s surface in detail that you never could have imagined before.
Things like sunspots, solar flares, and boiled fire can be seen all from the backyard. Giant coronas of superheated plasma shoot off the sun all the time and you will be able to see these tendrils coming off the sides of the sphere. Sights that could only be described to you by NASA before become available to you at home.
Solar telescopes are also great to view the transit of planets. If you have ever heard of the phenomena that happen every few years of a planet making a transit of the sun, now you can see that with your own eyes. A solar telescope can capture the moment when the planets cross the sun and become silhouetted in a way that usually is not visible to the average person.
Amazing Sun Closeup Snapped Using 1-Meter Solar Telescope
The sun is not a flat disk but a massive sphere of hydrogen, nuclear fission, and fire that displays great contrast, texture, and changes as it goes through its life. All of these things can be learned and explored with a solar telescope. If the sun or its solar cycles interests you at all, one of these telescopes can be an amazing thing to have.
Unlike with night focused telescopes, a good solar telescope will have a relatively small aperture for viewing. Usually, these come between 50mm and 80mm in diameter which is positively small compared to most night sky telescopes. This is because aperture size determines light gathering ability which is great when trying to capture the fleeting light of a far off nebula but with the sun, you do not need to gather as much light and too much light can make it harder to catch the details of the sun.
While some truly amazing technology makes these telescopes possible, they are not perfect and they come with a specific set of pros and cons that need to be considered before considering investing in a solar telescope.
Pros of A Solar Telescope
The biggest pro to getting an all-in-one solar telescope is the safety aspect. These are made by reputable manufacturers that have astronomers’ eyesight and overall safety in mind when they are designing these. Looking at the sun can be extremely dangerous otherwise.
These telescopes make looking at the sun extremely easy. If you have any interest in solar activity at all these telescopes make exploring it a breeze. Simply set up your kit and point it at the sun and you are ready to go.
Solar telescopes can be used during the day at any time. They are less susceptible to things like light pollution, air quality problems and the seasons. The sun rises every day and sets every day so as long as the sun is out then you can view it. Unlike trying to view night time sights like Saturn, which can be tricky, frustrating or impossible, viewing the sun only requires a sunny day.
This makes solar astronomy one of the easiest fields of astronomy to begin exploring immediately and these solar telescopes make that simple to achieve.
Cons of a Solar Telescope
The biggest drawback to a solar telescope is the primary design makes it so that they are only good for one thing: viewing the sun. If viewing the sun is what you want to do and the sights are truly something is going to keep your attention this is not that big of a deal. Solar telescopes are not versatile like traditional telescopes.
Traditional telescopes can be used to see stars, planets, galaxies, the moon and even sights on land. Solar telescopes can only really look at the sun which means that you are going to spend a lot of money on a device that only does one very specific thing. It does it very well but it doesn’t do anything else.
If you think you will lose interest in viewing the sun then I would suggest avoiding getting a solar telescope.
Another oddity in the solar telescope market is that most of the telescopes are sold without a mount or base. Almost all traditional nighttime telescopes are sold with at least a basic tripod but many solar telescopes do not come with this included. This is another thing to keep in mind when searching for a solar telescope.
The other potential downside to solar telescopes is their cost. A good quality, all-in-one setup with a good hydrogen-alpha blocking system is going to cost hundreds of dollars to start and can quickly balloon into the thousands. You can get the very best night time telescopes for the price of a solid solar telescope.
There are very few cheap or beginner options for solar telescopes in comparison to the night sky telescopes. This is because the solar viewing community is a fairly small niche in the larger astronomy community. This means it is hard to get into unless you have a real passion for the subject.
That being said, here are some of the best solar telescopes available online right now.
Best Budget Solar Telescope: Orion 10381 White Light Solar Refracting Telescope
Due to the relatively small community and niche status of solar telescopes, it is hard to find a model that is on the lower end of the budget that is great for beginners or those who want to just try out the technology for themselves. Orion rectifies this issue with their take on a basic solar refracting telescope.
For a low price, Orion offers the ability for anyone to get into solar astronomy with this telescope. It includes a built-in blocking system that is contained in an all-in-one unit. This is one of the cheapest options for a true solar telescope where everything is built-in and is perfect for anyone who wants to give this kind of telescope a try.
Unlike some of the pricier models, this one does not include any of the advanced hydrogen-alpha blocking technology. This telescope features a powerful white light filtering system that works to filter out the harsh light of the sun.
This is going to be similar to the kinds of devices used to view a solar eclipse in that it filters out the bright harmful light of the sun but it does not focus on any specific wavelength.
This will allow you to view things like solar eclipses, the general state of the sun on a standard day and maybe some of the larger structures and features around the periphery. It will not give you the high contrast images and fine detail that a hydrogen-alpha telescope will give you.
This telescope comes with two eyepieces for two different zoom levels and features a 70mm primary aperture giving it a focal ratio of f/7.1 which are all good specifications for general solar viewing. Despite being at the lower end in terms of price, Orion has made sure that this telescope covers all of the basics without skipping out on anything important.
This telescope is perfect for someone who wants to dabble in solar astronomy for the first time, anyone who does not have a ton of money to spend and is curious about the field or a nighttime astronomer who wants to add a piece of kit to their collection without going all out. It is a solid option in the very small field of affordable built-in solar telescopes that checks all of the boxes for a novice.Check Latest Price
Best Medium Budget Solar Telescope: Meade Instruments Coronado Personal Solar Telescope
The Meade Instruments Coronado Personal Solar Telescope combines two of the most trusted names in the solar telescope field in Meade and Coronado. Meade purchased Coronado Filters, a solar filter company, from David Lunt in the early 2000s and since then has worked to make personal solar telescopes more mainstream. Now it has given us an iconic and effective solar telescope to call our own.
With its gold optical tube and recognizable name emblazoned on the side, this telescope instantly stands out. It is visually striking which is fitting given that it gives striking views of our sun.
The Meade Instruments Coronado Personal Solar Telescope comes standard with a hydrogen-alpha bandpass filtering system which is all built-in. Completely non-removable and completely safe this system will give you that iconic deep red, rich view of the surface of the sun that you crave.
One of the best things about the Meade Instruments Coronado Personal Solar Telescope is its combination of ease of use and complex science. Unlike some other telescopes which require a lot of calibration, focusing or fiddling with attachments, this one really only requires you to choose an eyepiece and point it at the sun.
It is extremely easy to use due to the built-in filtering system. It comes with a single 18mm eyepiece that works with the filtering system to give you excellent views of the sun right out of the box without any guesswork.
Smartly, this telescope does not have a very large aperture. It comes in at 40mm giving it a focal ratio of f/10. This really shows that this telescope was made to look at the sun. The focused aperture size means it will let in the perfect amount of light for solar viewing that won’t overload the filtering system giving you perfect images of the sun every time.
The downsides to this model are the lack of out of the box accessories. It only comes with one eyepiece and no stand meaning that other accessories might be required to get the full range of use out of this telescope. Solar astronomy accessories can be expensive so this might put a strain on anyone with a tight budget.
Some people have said you can put this on a standard camera tripod or even piggyback it on an existing telescope rig but the lack of a stand out of the box adds another thing you have to consider when buying.
Overall, this is a great all-around solar telescope right out of the box. Coronado has been a staple of the personal solar telescope field for years and was one of the pioneers in this strengthening niche in astronomy. This telescope works great out of the box, it is safe, looks great and offers amazing views of the sun.
Anyone who has a few hundred to spend and wants to get into solar astronomy could do a lot worse than the Meade Instruments Coronado Personal Solar Telescope.Check Latest Price
Best Big Budget Solar Telescope: Lunt Solar Systems 60mm H-alpha Telescope
The other big name in solar telescopes is Lunt Solar Systems. Lunt is based out of Arizona and is an American team dedicated to giving the public research-grade telescopes. Lunt takes quality control and product assurance extremely seriously which has produced some stellar telescopes in terms of quality.
The Lunt Solar Systems 60mm H-alpha Telescope is one such telescope. This telescope features a fully integrated hydrogen-alpha filtering system that runs at 656nm (nanometers) which gives you a quality that is unmatched in the amateur market. This allows the telescope to give you amazing contrast and surface detail as well as crisp peripherals.
This is due to their unique etalon which comes with a tilt turner that allows it to capture the best of both peripheral and surface detail. Nothing else on the market in this price range compares.
In other words, this is a professional, research-grade image quality that is packed into this backyard telescope. Their hydrogen-alpha filter system is a step above the competition on the market but they do not stop there.
The big focus of the Lunt Solar Systems 60mm H-alpha Telescope is overall image quality. Besides lowering the size to 656nm in their system they have also focused on eliminating every kind of image detriment imaginable.
The sun is extremely bright and very volatile which can create all sorts of visual disturbances for optical devices. Just point a digital camera at the sun and try and snap a picture. It comes out terribly.
They have designed a special lens for this refractor design which allows the telescope to eliminate all kinds of visual aberrations that can arise in solar viewing. It is a single chromatic solar lens that Lunt claims fully eliminates the possibility of a host of visual issues. Not only have they designed their hydrogen-alpha filtering system to meet the highest image quality standards but they have designed a primary lens to match.
The lens also comes fitted and threaded for dust caps and other lens mounts that can be purchased to enhance or protect the lens. It ships at a very light 5lbs in a strong aluminum case. The lightweight frame and small size mean that it can be easily stored, packed up and taken along for an adventure or set up in the backyard for any sunny day.
This is completely an all in one design meaning it does not have very much leeway for accessories and upgrades in terms of eyepieces or changing the internal parameters. Luckily, the whole system is fantastic and doesn’t need much tweaking but this could bum out the astronomers who like to dabble with their scopes.
This is also the most expensive telescope on this list. It comes in north of a grand but the features it offers are truly amazing. The money might scare some people away, and the Coronado is a great alternative for those looking to save some money but in terms of quality, the Lunt Solar Systems 60mm H-alpha Telescope is unmatched.Check Latest Price
Consider Solar Astronomy But Do So Carefully
If the wonders of the night sky have left you wanting more or if seeing the twinkling distant suns has made you more curious about our own, solar astronomy is a fascinating and growing niche in the astronomy field that can be a neat endeavor for anyone.
The amount of physics, modern technology and forethought that have gone into these telescopes to make them safe and produce high-quality images is incredible to think about. Most of the time glancing at the sun causes a flash of pain and is best avoided at all costs. Thanks to the scientists and passionate astronomers who have worked on these telescopes this is a thing of the past for all who want it to be.
Again, I cannot stress enough, if you do not know what you are doing or if you have any doubt about the quality, setup or functionality of any solar viewing device then do not use it. Do not use any device that is not meant to look at the sun to do so. Heed all instructions and warnings and use all of these products as intended. Failure to do so can lead to permanent blindness and other health issues.
As amazing as this technology is, and it really is, the sun is still a dangerous thing to look at. Always be careful and appreciate what has gone into making these telescopes safe to look at the sun through.