Astronomical filter

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Ultraviolet filters used in astronomy for blocking the ultraviolet radiation, which causes the camera to heat up when photographing (without affecting the image).

An astronomical filter is a telescope accessory consisting of an optical filter used by amateur astronomers to simply enhance the details of celestial objects (much as with amateur photography). In contrast, research astronomers use filters on telescopes in order to understand the astrophysics (such as stellar classification and placement of a celestial body on its Wien Curve), occurring for the object in a given bandpass via photometry.

Most astronomical filters work by blocking a specific part of the color spectrum above and below a bandpass, significantly increasing the signal to noise of the interesting wavelengths, and so making the object gain detail and contrast. While the color filters transmit certain colors from the spectrum and are usually used for observation of the planets and the Moon, the polarizing filters work by adjusting the brightness, and are usually used for the Moon. The broadband and narrowband filters transmit the wavelengths that are emitted by the nebulae (by the Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms), and are frequently used for reducing light pollution.[1]

Solar filters[edit]

White light filters[edit]

Solar filters block most of the sunlight to avoid any damage to the eyes. Proper filters are usually made from a durable glass or polymer film that transmits only 0.00001% of the light. For safety, solar filters must be securely fitted over the objective of a refracting telescope or aperture of a reflecting telescope so that the body does not heat up significantly.

Small solar filters threaded behind eyepieces do not block the radiation entering the scope body, causing the telescope to heat up greatly, and it’s not unknown for them to shatter from thermal shock. Therefore, most experts do not recommend such solar filters for eyepieces, and some stockists refuse to sell them or remove them from telescope packages. According to NASA: "Solar filters designed to thread into eyepieces that are often provided with inexpensive telescopes are also unsafe. These glass filters can crack unexpectedly from overheating when the telescope is pointed at the Sun, and retinal damage can occur faster than the observer can move the eye from the eyepiece."[2]

Solar filters are used to safely observe and photograph the Sun, which often appears as a yellow-orange disk. A telescope with these filters attached can directly and properly view details of solar features, especially sunspots and granulation on the surface,[3] as well as solar eclipses and transits of the inferior planets Mercury and Venus across the solar disk.

Narrowband filters[edit]

The Herschel Wedge is a prism-based device combined with a neutral-density filter that directs most of the heat and ultraviolet rays out of the telescope, generally giving better results than most filter types. The H-alpha filter transmits the H-alpha spectral line for viewing solar flares and prominences[1] invisible through common filters. These H-alpha filters are much narrower than those use for night H-alpha observing (see Nebular filters below), passing only 0.5 angstroms for one common model,[4] which is 0.05 nm, compared with 3 nm-12 nm or more for night filters. Due to the narrow bandpass and temperature shifts often telescopes like that are tunable within about a +/-0.5 angstrom range.

NASA included the following filters on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, of which only one is visible to human eyes (450.0 nm):[5] 450.0 nm, 170.0 nm, 160.0 nm, 33.5 nm, 30.4 nm, 19.3 nm, 21.1 nm, 17.1 nm, 13.1 nm, and 9.4 nm. These were chosen for temperature, instead of particular emission lines as are many narrowband filters, such as the H-alpha line mentioned above.

Color filters[edit]

A blue color filter

Color filters work by absorption/transmission, and can tell which part of the spectrum they are reflecting and transmitting. Filters can be used to increase contrast and enhance the details of the Moon and planets. All of the visible spectrum colors each have a filter, and every color filter is used to bring a certain lunar and planetary feature; for example, the #8 yellow filter is used to show Mars's maria and Jupiter's belts.[6] The Wratten system is the standard number system used to refer to the color filter types. It was first manufactured by Kodak in 1909.[1]

Professional filters are also colored, but their bandpass centers are placed around other midpoints (such as in the UBVRI and Cousins systems).

Some of common color filters and their uses are:[7]

  • Chromatic aberration filters: Used for reduction of the purplish halo, caused by chromatic aberration of refracting telescopes. Such halo can obscure features of bright objects, especially Moon and planets. These filters have no effect on observing faint objects.
  • Red: Reduces sky brightness, particularly during daylight and twilight observations. Improves definition of maria, ice, and polar areas of Mars. Improves contrast of blue clouds against background of Jupiter and Saturn.
  • Deep yellow: Improves resolution of atmospheric features of Venus, Jupiter (especially in polar regions), and Saturn. Increases contrast of polar caps, clouds, ice and dust storms on Mars. Enhances comet tails.
  • Dark green: Improves cloud patterns on Venus. Reduces sky brightness during daylight observation of Venus. Increases contrast of ice and polar caps on Mars. Improves visibility of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and other features in Jupiter atmosphere. Enhances white clouds and polar regions on Saturn.
  • Medium blue: Enhances contrast of Moon. Increases contrast of faint shading of Venus clouds. Enhances surface features, clouds, ice and dust storms on Mars. Enhances definition of boundaries between features in atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn. Improves definition of comet gas tails.

Moon filters[edit]

Neutral density filters, also known in astronomy as Moon filters, are another approach for contrast enhancement and glare reduction. They work simply by blocking some of the object's light to enhance the contrast. Neutral density filters are mainly used in traditional photography, but are used in astronomy to enhance lunar and planetary observations.

Polarizing filters[edit]

Polarizing filters adjust the brightness of images to a better level for observing, but much less so than solar filters. With these types of filter, the range of transmission varies from 3% to 40%. They are usually used for the observation of the Moon,[1] but may also be used for planetary observation. They consist of two polarizing layers in a rotating aluminum cell,[8] which changes the amount of transmission of the filter by rotating them. This reduction in brightness and improvement in contrast can reveal the lunar surface features and details, especially when it is near full. Polarizing filters should not be used in place of solar filters designed specially for observing the sun.

Nebular filters[edit]


The three main spectral lines that Narrowband filters transmit

Narrowband filters are astronomical filters which transmit only a narrow band of spectral lines from the spectrum (usually 22 nm or less). It is mainly used for nebulae observation. Emission nebulae mainly radiate the doubly ionized oxygen in the visible spectrum, which emits near 500 nm wavelength. These nebulae also radiate weakly at 486 nm, the Hydrogen-beta line.

There are two main types of Narrowband filters: Ultra-high contrast (UHC), and specific emission line(s) filters.

Specific Emission line filters[edit]

Specific emission line (or lines) filters are used to isolate line or lines of specific elements or molecules to allow for being able to see the distribution within Nebula. This is a common method to produce false color images. Common filters are often use for the Hubble Space Telescope, forming the so-called HST-pallet, with colors assigned as such: Red- S-II, Green- H-alpha, Blue- O-III. These filters will commonly be specified with a second nm, which refers to how wide a band is passed, which may cause it to exclude or include other lines. For example, H-alpha at 656, may pick up N-II (at 658/654), some filters will block most of the N-II if they are 3 nm wide.[9]

Commonly used lines/filters are:

  • H-Alpha Hα/Ha (656 nm) from the Balmer series is emitted by HII Regions and is one of the stronger sources.
  • H-Beta Hβ/Hb (486 nm) from the Balmer series is visible from stronger sources.
  • O-III (496 nm and 501 nm) filters allow for both of the Oxygen-III lines to pass through. This is strong in many Emission nebulae.
  • S-II (672 nm) filters show the Sulfur-II line.

Less common lines/filters:

  • He-II (468 nm) [10]
  • He-I: (587 nm) [10]
  • O-I: (630 nm) [10]
  • Ar-III: (713 nm) [10]
  • CA-II Ca-K/Ca-H: (393 and 396 nm) [11] For solar observing, shows the sun with the K and H Fraunhofer lines
  • N-II (658 nm and 654 nm) Often included in wider H-alpha filters [9]
  • Methane (889 nm) [12] allowing clouds to be seen on the gas giants, Venus and (with filter) the Sun.

Ultra-High Contrast filters[edit]

Known commonly as UHC filters, these filters consist of things which allow multiple strong common emission lines to pass through, which also has the effect of the similar Light Pollution Reduction filters (see below) of blocking most light sources.

The UHC filters range from 484 to 506 nm.[6] It transmits both the O-III and H-beta spectral lines, blocks a large fraction of light pollution, and brings the details of planetary nebula and most of emission nebulae under a dark sky.[13]


The broadband, or light pollution reduction (LPR), filters are nebular filters that block the light pollution in the sky and transmit the H-alpha, H-beta, and O III spectral lines, which makes observing nebulae from the city and light polluted skies possible.[1] These filters block the Sodium and Mercury vapor light, and also block the natural skyglow such as the auroral light.[14] The broadband filters differ from the narrowband with the range of wavelengths transmission. LED lighting is more broadband so this is not blocked although white LEDs have from themselves a considerably lower output around 480 nm which is close to O III and H-beta wavelength. The broadband filters have a wider range because the narrower transmission range causes a fainter image of sky objects, and since the work of these filters is revealing the details of nebulae from light polluted skies, it has a wider transmission for more brightness.[6] These filters are particularly designed for nebulae observing, are not useful with other deep sky objects. However, it can improve the contrast between the DSOs and the background sky, which may clarify the image.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "astronomy for everyone: the use of filters". Archived from the original on 2010-11-11. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  2. ^ "Eye Safety During Eclipses". NASA.
  3. ^ "Solar Filters". Thousand Oaks Optical. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  4. ^ "Coronado PST Personal Solar Telescope". Retrieved 2018-10-18.
  5. ^ "Why NASA scientists observe the sun in different wavelengths". NASA. Retrieved 2018-10-18.
  6. ^ a b c "filters - popular and hot telescope filters". Lumicon international. Archived from the original on 2010-11-25. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  7. ^ "Orion 1.25" Deluxe StarGazer's six filter set of light pollution, variable polarizer, and color filters". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2011-03-09.
  8. ^ "Orion variable polarizing telescope filters". Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. Archived from the original on 13 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  9. ^ a b "Astrodon Narrowband FAQ" (PDF). Astrodon. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 October 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  10. ^ a b c d "Helium, argon, neutral oxygen and other bands in narrowband imaging". Lumicon international. Archived from the original on 10 October 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  11. ^ "Important notes on the stacked K-line filter" (PDF). Baader Planetarium. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 October 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  12. ^ "Baader Planetarium Methane Filter Description". Archived from the original on 2017-12-24. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  13. ^ "UHC filters". Archived from the original on 7 July 2011. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  14. ^ "Meade series 4000 Broadband Nebular filters". Meade Instruments. Retrieved 2010-11-23.