Our nearest star, the Sun, offers more dynamic activity and day-by-day changes than any other object in the sky. With even an inexpensive white-light filter on a telescope, you can see sunspots, the sun’s grainy surface, and safely observe eclipses. With a more expensive hydrogen-alpha telescope, you can look at solar flares and prominences in addition to the aforementioned features. The Sun changes minute by minute, especially filaments and prominences, which can appear and sometimes disappear in the span of hours.
If you’re strictly interested in white light observing and not a dedicated solar instrument, consider purchasing a good regular telescope and buying a full-aperture film or glass white light solar filter for it instead.
A word about safety
When buying a solar telescope or solar filter, always make sure your device is ISO and/or CE certified and that your filter has no pinholes or coating errors. Also, if your telescope’s filter is not permanently built in, be sure to check that it is snug and has no gaps or light leaks.
Failing to do any of the above can result in eye injury and temporary or permanent blindness. The Sun is plenty safe to observe with the right equipment, but always take precautions when doing so to prevent any accidents.
Best Solar Telescopes Overview
- $300-500 range: Sky-Watcher Virtuoso – For around $350, you get a 90mm Maksutov on an alt-azimuth tracking mount with slewing buttons, a solar filter, and 2 eyepieces. Cheap, versatile, useful for things besides the Sun.
- $600-$850 range: Meade Coronado Personal Solar Telescope – Best selling H-alpha solar telescope of all time. Not too expensive, compact, will show you solar prominences and flares.
- $850-$1300 range: Lunt LS50 – A serious solar telescope capable of showing you a lot.
- $1300-$2000 range: Lunt LS60 – The LS60 is big and expensive, but it’ll give you stunning solar views.
Tips on Choosing a Solar Telescope
- Can any telescope be used as a solar telescope?
Any telescope can be used as a white light solar telescope with the purchase of a safe white-light solar filter that attaches to the front end. Keep in mind that this will only show you sunspots and not much else.
We would not recommend using a solar filter on a truss tube or collapsible telescope, as even the tiniest glint of stray sunlight may cause blindness or start a fire if it gets into the tube.
- White Light, Hydrogen-Alpha, and Calcium-K: What’s the Difference?
White light solar filters are typically removable and attach to the front end of your telescope. You should never use a solar filter that screws onto your eyepiece. White light solar filters can be made of glass or a special Mylar-like reflective film. White-light filters are named as such because the entire visible light spectrum is transmitted. Depending on the exact material used in the filter, the sun may appear white, yellow, orange, or with a slight greenish or blueish tone. White-light filters show the Sun’s photosphere, the Sun’s “surface”, so you’ll see sunspots and the photosphere’s grainy surface. When there are no sunspots the sun is essentially featureless.
White light filters are made by a variety of reputable manufacturers, including Thousand Oaks Optical, Baader Planetarium, Orion Telescopes, and Spectrum Telescopes.
Hydrogen-alpha filters work a little differently, using a Fabry-Perot etalon and a dichroic blocking filter to filter the sun’s light down to a very narrow wavelength, 1 angstrom or less. This makes the Sun appear ruby red and shows the Sun’s chromosphere, the lower “atmosphere” where solar prominences, filaments, plages, and spicules (a phenomena in the Sun’s atmosphere) occur. You can still see granulation and sunspots, too. The Sun shows plenty of constantly changing features when observed in H-alpha.
Seldom seen but also available are Calcium-K filters, which work basically the same way as hydrogen-alpha filters do with an etalon. They show more details in the chromosphere (mainly brighter and darker regions with sunspots) at the expense of not being able to reveal prominences/flares very well. Some people also cannot see far enough into the deep blue/near-ultraviolet light that Calcium-K appears as, so you may also want to try viewing with one of these telescopes/filters first to make sure it works for you.
Obviously, you don’t need the extra light collecting area provided by a larger telescope to see the sun better, as it’s already blindingly bright and being filtered down anyway. So all the aperture does is increase resolution.
There’s a problem, though: seeing. Atmospheric seeing, or air turbulence, is typically pretty bad during the daytime, and the area of sky around the sun is the worst. The result is that solar scopes above four to six inches or so have to resort to costly measures to eliminate the effects of bad seeing, as even lucky imaging and stacking with cameras and computer software is limited in what it can compensate for. As a result, most solar telescopes tend to be below five inches in aperture and are refractors so as to provide the highest contrast and resolution.
- Eclipse glasses
Eclipse glasses are primarily meant for viewing eclipses, and should not be worn while looking through a telescope nor used as a makeshift solar filter (the former will still allow focused sunlight through the telescope and burn a hole in the glasses, while eclipse glasses shouldn’t be used as the latter due to their lower standard of quality than what is needed for safe and sharp views through a telescope).
Best Telescopes For Viewing The Sun: Reviewed
1. Sky-Watcher Virtuoso – Choice Between $250-$600
- Compact Maksutov-Cassegrain design can be brought anywhere
- Works on a tabletop or a tripod
- Usable as a regular astronomical telescope or spotting scope
The Sky-Watcher Virtuoso package includes a 90mm Maksutov on an alt-azimuth tracking mount with slewing buttons, a solar filter, and 2 eyepieces. An amateur 15 years ago would’ve paid more than twice as much for the same thing with less functionality.
The Virtuoso’s tracking system is dead simple: Point it at Polaris, lock the axes, and switch the scope on. Obviously, sighting Polaris doesn’t work during the day, so you can do something simpler: Point the scope north as best you can and point it at the altitude that Polaris would be at (your latitude in degrees north) – it won’t be perfect, but plenty good for tracking the Sun and certainly better than nothing.
The Virtuoso is a tabletop scope, but it has threads in the bottom to attach to a photo tripod, which I highly recommend using. The Virtuoso comes with 25mm and 10mm “Super” eyepieces which are more than adequate and a 5×24 solar finder. This finder is junk and should be replaced with a red dot, and you should NEVER look through it when using the telescope on the Sun.
2. Meade Coronado Personal Solar Telescope – Choice Between $600-$850
- H-alpha etalon shows extensive solar details such as prominences, filaments and flares
- Fits basically any tripod
- Easy to use
The Coronado PST revolutionized solar observing when it was introduced in the early 2000s. Prior to the PST, H-alpha solar telescopes were extremely expensive affairs, only found in the hands of very wealthy and skilled amateurs or professional astronomers.
The PST comes with a single 18mm Plossl eyepiece, which should work okay, but you’ll want at least a couple other eyepieces. As is generally true of most H-alpha scopes, a mount is not provided with the PST. But Meade sells lightweight, inexpensive alt-azimuth and equatorial mounts designed to match the aesthetics of the PST, and the PST can be easily adapted to fit a Vixen dovetail plate and thus most mounts, or you can screw it directly to a photo tripod.
The PST only has one major weakness: its focuser. The PST focuses by moving a pentaprism, which keeps the eyepiece fixed and the scope compact, but it has limited travel. This means that many cameras and even certain eyepieces or eyepiece/Barlow combinations cannot reach focus. Otherwise, the PST is an absolutely great solar telescope at an affordable price.
3. Lunt LS50 – Choice Between $850-$1300
- More aperture means sharper solar views and more magnification ability
- Works well with most cameras
- Fits most mounts
Serious solar observing and imaging require 50mm of aperture, and the Lunt LS50 delivers on both. It’s capable of high magnification (75-100x) and can take stunning solar images with even relatively inexpensive cameras. The scope’s tuning system is also far superior to the one supplied with the Coronado PST.
My only complaint is the focuser. By default, the LS50’s focuser is a nonrotating 1.25” helical. It’s usable and provides plenty of travel, though it’s not my favorite. You can buy an aftermarket 1.25” Moonlite or FeatherTouch focuser which will easily attach to the scope. But keep in mind that either is several hundred dollars, which puts you close to the price of Lunt’s LS60, which comes with a built-in 2” dual-speed Crayford focuser.
The LS50 lacks a finder or mount. The Tele-Vue Sol Searcher attaches right to the tube clamshell and is relatively inexpensive if you need a finder, though you can just aim the scope using its shadow on the ground and get dead-accurate pointing. For mounting, you can attach the scope directly to a photo tripod or buy a Vixen dovetail plate and an equatorial or alt-azimuth mount; anything rated to hold at least ten pounds will do for visual or photography.
The LS50 comes with a 21.5mm-7.2mm zoom eyepiece, which provides between 16x and 48x magnification.
4. Lunt LS60 – Choice Between $1300-$1600
- Larger aperture means sharper solar views and more magnification ability
- Works well for viewing or photography
- Great for serious imaging
The Lunt LS60 shares relatively little in common with its little brother. Sporting a completely different internal tuning system and a GSO dual-speed 2” focuser (with an optional upgrade to a Feathertouch), it is far superior to the LS50 in form and function.
Like the LS50, the LS60 could use a finder like the Tele-Vue Sol Searcher, and it has a ¼ 20 hole on the bottom of the tube clamshell for attaching to a photo tripod. However, the LS60 operates at enough magnification and is hefty enough that you should really consider a quality astronomical alt-azimuth or equatorial mount with at least 10-15 pounds of weight capacity, which will also necessitate purchasing and attaching a Vixen dovetail to the LS60’s tube clamshell.
The LS60 doesn’t seem to be supplied with Lunt’s zoom eyepiece by default, but you can buy it or any other eyepieces separately.
This version of the Coronado PST has an extra etalon on the front, reducing its bandpass from 1 angstrom to 0.5 angstroms. You can take off the extra etalon to revert it to a normal PST if need be.
While reduced bandpass offers more surface detail, the downsides are that the scope becomes less portable, significantly more expensive, and the images are dimmer. And for less money, you can get the Lunt LS50 which has a 0.7 angstrom bandpass – nearly as narrow – and more aperture. However, some people swear by double stacking and the slightly narrower bandpass, so it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth your money or not.
Useful Accessories for your Solar Telescope
Tele-Vue Sol Searcher
You can line up your solar telescope with the Sun using its shadow, but if you’d like to save yourself some time and frustration, then there’s Tele-Vue’s Sol Searcher. It operates using similar principles to a pinhole camera and attaches to your scope via screws, or you can use Velcro or double-sided tape to install it.
Coronado Cemax Eyepieces & Barlow
These eyepieces and Barlow are designed specifically for solar use with special blackening, baffling, and solar-optimized coatings. They also come with a nice hard carry case if you buy the full set.
Coronado AZS Mount
This mount works great if you’re looking to do only visual observing and simple photography with your solar scope. It’s designed to match the aesthetic of the Coronado H-alpha solar telescopes, but it looks good with Lunts and other scopes too. The Coronado AZS mount is also great for any small telescope that has a ¼ 20 hole or Vixen dovetail plate for both terrestrial and nighttime use.
Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro
The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is not only a great mount for wide-field astrophotography with your DSLR, but it’s great for mounting any small telescope, including an H-alpha solar telescope. However, it does not come bundled with a tripod, so you’ll need to buy that separately–a heavy-duty photo tripod is best.