More low-cost solar observing

June 4, 2012

In preparation for the transit of Venus tomorrow, I did a little hacking and tinkering late this afternoon. Although the sun funnel worked well enough for watching the eclipse, as we’ll see below it is not perfect for photographing the sun in any detail. My full-aperture solar filter still hasn’t arrived, but I got to thinking about how to make a safe direct viewing setup.

I recently acquired a Celestron Travel Scope 70, a little 70mm (2.75 inch) f/5.7 achromatic refractor. Like a lot of small refractors, the dust cap for the objective lens has a smaller removable cap in the middle, in case you want to stop down the scope for more pleasant viewing of bright targets like the full moon. The diameter of the small hole in the middle of the big cap is 40mm, so with big cap on but the small cap off, the scope functions as a 40mm f/10.

I don’t have any loose solar film to make a 70mm solar filter or even a 40mm solar filter. But I do have a stack of eclipse glasses, each of which has two 1×1.5 inch eye holes covered with solar film. So I cut one of the eclipse glasses in half, made a round 25mm aperture in a square piece of cardboard, and mounted the eclipse glasses ‘lens’ (solar film still surrounded by two sheets of thin cardboard) and the 25mm aperture stop on the back side of the big dust cap. I didn’t think to take any pictures of the inside of the dust cap to show how it all goes together, but hopefully the general idea is clear enough. With the big dust cap on and the small dust cap off, the scope admits a 25mm beam of fully solar-filtered light to the objective, turning the scope into a 25mm f/16 solar refractor. And because the solar filter is on the inside of the big dust cap and protected by the small dust cap (in front) and the second piece of cardboard with the 25mm aperture stop (behind), I can leave it in all the time. Take the big dust cap off, the scope functions normally. Take only the small one off, I’ve got a 1-inch solar scope.

Two other design decisions to note. First, the finder–and I use the term advisedly–that came with this scope is without doubt the worst finder I have ever seen on a commercial scope from a brand name manufacturer. It looks like a 5×20 straight-through magnifying finder. However, right behind the (single, plastic) objective lens is an aperture stop with only a 1-cm hole in the middle. So in fact it’s a 5×10 finder with a plastic singlet objective. The immense irony is that the scope doesn’t need a finder at all; throw in a 32mm Plossl and you get 12.5x and 4-degree true field of view, so the scope effectively functions as its own superfinder. So I unscrewed both ends of the finder and dumped out all the plastic optics, turning it into a hollow sight tube. Why is this important right now? Because it’s really dumb to leave a magnifying finder on a telescope being used for solar observing; it’s too easy to forget what you’re doing and accidentally looking through the unfiltered finder and cause serious eye damage or blindness. There’s a good reason that every commercial telescope comes with a “don’t point the scope at the sun, dummy” tag or sticker or both. This is not something to mess around with. If you’re going to observe the sun with a telescope, cultivate the same habits of awareness and deliberate action that you would use around loaded firearms and power saws.

Oh, the included 45-degree prism diagonal is also rubbish and the light tripod looks pretty dodgy. Today I used my standard small-scope setup–an AstroTech 90-degree dielectric star diagonal and a Universal Astronomics DwarfStar alt-az head on a Bogen/Manfrotto tripod–and I’ll doubtless do the same in the future.

The other design thing was the sun shield. At first I tried going without but look into a dark eyepiece to catch a filtered (= comparatively dim) view of the filtered sun while unfiltered sunlight was hitting the top of my head and my upper eyelid had me squinting and developing a minor headache almost immediately. The plastic dewshield on this scope pulls right off, so I got a handy piece of cardboard (part of the packaging of a picture frame), cut a hole just big enough to admit the front end of the scope without the dewshield, slid the cardboard sunshield on and used the plastic dew shield (and dust cap with solar filter) to hold it in place. I also cut a second, smaller hole to let light in to my sight tube sun finder.

If you do something similar, make sure that the sun shield can’t get blown off and take the solar filter with it. In my case, the dewshield slides on a long way and grips both the sun shield and telescope tube firmly; a strong enough breeze might upend the whole setup, but it couldn’t blow off just the shield and filter. Again, eye safety is paramount; don’t take any chances.

Okay, so how did it work in practice? Pretty darned well. I had already aligned the sight tube with the telescope, so all I had to do was rotate the sun shield a bit to make sure the second, smaller hole lined up with the sight tube. Then I could point the scope roughly at the sun and pan around until a perfectly round beam of sunlight (projected on my hand) emerged from the sight tube. That always put the sun in the field of view of a 25mm Plossl (16x, 3 degree true field of view). The view of the sun at the eyepiece was reasonably bright–for an astronomical object, not compared to the unfiltered sunlight streaming down all around–and razor-sharp. The sunspots with their umbrae (dark centers) and penumbrae (lighter borders) were striking, like they’d been etched on stained glass.

Happily, the filtered scope yielded nice, even light all over the surface of the sun, no matter where it roamed in the field of the view. My one beef with the sun funnel is that it can be hard to get really good photos because of the inherent granularity of the screen material. Inevitably some part of the projected sun is brighter than another, and if you manage to get the light perfectly centered, it can easily wipe out the sunspots. The best way I’ve found to avoid this flashlight-beam effect is to photograph the sun from a bit to the side, out of the direct path of the projected light (that’s how I got this very sharp photo), but then the sun is out of round–not ideal if you’re hoping to combine images into a composite or movie, or even get a nice, square-on shot of a circular sun.

For example, in the photo above the sunspots on the left are sharp enough–the big one even shows the umbra and penumbra clearly–but the dimmer two on the right are lost in the flashlight glow of the sun lighting up the screen material from behind. And in this view the sun is already way out of round.

Also note that this image is flipped horizontally compared with the image from the refractor. In fact, this image is correctly oriented. Normally Newtonian reflectors show things rotated by 180 degrees, but projecting the image on the screen undoes that and gets everything back to normal. The solar filter on the refractor just cuts down the intensity of the light, it does nothing to reorient the image, so the image at the eyepiece is right side up but, because of the 90-degree mirror, flipped left-to-right.

I didn’t go to all of this trouble just for the transit of Venus. I mean, I happily would have, had the transit been the only game in town. But it’s not–the Astronomical League has a Sunspotters observing program, and now that I have the gear for solar observing, I might as well start logging. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Now, I should point out that the flashlight-beam effect washing out the sunspots in the sun funnel is mostly a photographic concern. For visual appreciation, even solo, I think the sun funnel still wins. A 4-inch image scale and the ability to put your head and eyes wherever you want–and even wear polarized sunglasses to observe–can’t be beat. But for photography, I prefer the filtered direct view–even in a one-inch scope.

Fortunately I’ll be rolling with both tomorrow. Now if the weather just cooperates…



  1. […] we had along the Celestron Travel Scope 70 with the aperture mask and solar filter described in this post, for direct viewing. Here’s my friend Marcy, who was there with friends for about half of the […]

  2. Hi Matt. I really like the simplicity of your Manfrotto/UA mount, and am considering a similar setup for my 90mm Mak (and Canon DLSR). However, I wish I could find a mount similar to the UA DwarfStar but which includes the slow-motion controls similar to the Vixen Porta Mount. Do you know if the Porta Mount is proprietary to its own tripods or will the Porta Mount fit atop a Manfrotto tripod? Or if you have any other suggestions for a mount like I’m describing, I’m all ears!

    Kudos once again on your blog! Quite enjoyable!


  3. The Vixen Porta II Mount (the latest version of the Porta Mount) has a detachable head and should fit atop a sturdy Manfrotto tripod with a 3/8-16″ screw.

  4. […] bits. The hex wrench set and screwdriver are mine, the solar film inside the lens cap (described here) is one of my hacks, but the rest is as it came from the factory. Only, you know, taken apart. From […]

  5. Obviously, the sun gives off far, far more than sufficient light for you to be able to stop down the scope a lot like this, and still be able to see the surface well. But doesn’t stopping down the scope this way eliminate a lot of resolution? The smaller the aperture, the less detail you’re going to see. Me, I would want to build a solar filter out of some nice, cheap, Baader film to cover the entire aperture of the scope so as to be able to see as much detail as possible. I see that you ended up doing this in a later post, but why not just start out this way?

  6. Necessity (and poverty) are the mothers of invention. In the run up to the annular eclipse and Venus transit in 2012, lots of places were sold out of solar filters months in advance, especially the big ones. I suppose I could have ordered a big sheet of Baader solar film, but I was saving my money for the eclipse trip. I didn’t decide to make a stopped-down solar scope out of the TS70 instead of ordering a big solar filter; since I had no intention of the doing the latter, it was make a small filtered scope or none at all.

    You’re right, of course, to state that a bigger aperture solar scope would show a lot more detail. But I’m pretty happy with the level of detail I’ve gotten out of my tiny solar scopes. Here’s the best photo of the Venus transit from the stopped-down TS70 (25mm), and here’s the best photo of the recent partial eclipse in the Galileoscope (50mm). As you point out, the sun is bright enough that you can get decent results even with very modest gear.

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