Solar observation and solar photography are a lot of fun with the right equipment, and this is a great time to start.
Every 11 years the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips. That means that the north and south poles switch places. Then the cycle starts again and it takes another 11 years for them to switch back. Through that 11 year cycle you get solar minimum and solar maximums. Solar maximum is the fun one with increased levels of activity. This increased activity can be seen from earth as sun spots, and flares.
We’re now in solar cycle 25, which began in December 2019. That means we’re budling up to solar maximum between 2024 and 2026. Here at the shop, we get our solar scope outside most days to take a quick peak at what the sun is doing. We’ve seen great aurora, flares, and lots of sun spots.
Now is a great time to start solar observing, just make sure you use the right equipment. There are a number of different ways to safely observe the sun. The commonly available options fall into two large categories.
The first is white light filtering that will show you great detail on the photosphere of the sun. This layer of the sun will show sun spots, and is great for viewing partial eclipses and transits across the sun. These transits include the international space station and the inner planets.
The second is Hydrogen alpha filtering. This is a more specialized [read expensive] way of viewing the sun. You will see everything that you can with a white light filter, plus extraordinary detail and solar prominences/eruptions/flares in the chromosphere. Here’s a picture to illustrate the difference.
Hydrogen alpha view of the chromosphere on the left, white light view of the photosphere on the right.
There are four good options for white light solar observation
- A pair of eclipse glasses. These are not designed for repeated use, but if you’re careful you can use them for a long time. They’re cardboard frames with a safe solar film viewing window. We only carry eclipse glasses made by reputable manufacturers using ISO compliant solar filter membrane.
- A pair of solar binoculars. These are re-useable and should last as long as you don’t drop them. They’ll give you an enhanced view with a little magnification. These are typically between 6x and 8x magnification for getting a little closer look at the sun.
- A solar filter for your telescope will let you use the full range of magnification that you’re used to in the night sky. These are filters that cover the front of the telescope to block everything except white light from the sun. These are also a little easier if you’re trying to get a quick picture of the sun. You can use a cell phone adapter, or anything else that you’re already using for astrophotography to get a great shot of the sun.
- A dedicated solar telescope like the Celestron EclipSmart is a small, portable telescope that you can use to check out the sun anytime you’d like. It’s simple to set up, and easy to use. It’s really easy to grab quick pictures with one of these scopes as well, and it can save you the trouble of setting up your bigger, heavier nighttime rig.
If you want to get into Hydrogen alpha observing and imaging there are a couple of brands we recommend. Both Lunt and Coronado are made in North America and offer incredible views. There are a lot of nuanced options, and in addition to the size (aperture) you’re going to come across terms blocking filter and double stack. Hydrogen alpha really deserves it’s own article, and we’ll get to that in a future post.
In the meantime, we have our Hydrogen alpha scope set up at the shop most days, feel free to come take a look through it, or to reach out with any questions you have on any solar observing or imaging.