As the 2024 North American total solar eclipse approaches, many are planning on attempting to photograph the event, or even deciding whether it is worth the attempt. This is a decision made by many every time a total solar eclipse occurs. As with any astrophotography endeavor, having a tracking mount eliminates the need for finding the target and framing it for every exposure. Solar photography does not have the same need for long exposures as nighttime astrophotography, so tracking is not essential. But a tracking mount can make this possible for those who want to automate the process of centering the sun over a 2 ½ hour period.
Enter the SolarQuest sun-tracking mount from Sky-Watcher. The annular eclipse over the southwestern portion of the United States in October 2023 offered me an opportunity to photograph a partial eclipse from Southern California. Not surprisingly with the upcoming total solar eclipse, the demand for the SolarQuest was high, and I had to wait nearly two months for the item to arrive from Agena Astro, which is my go-to vendor.
How Does it Work?
The concept is simple. Using the company’s patented HelioFind technology, all you have to do is set the unit outside on a day in which the sun is visible, level the unit, and push a button. Using built-in GPS, the unit predicts the location of the sun and then begins a sweep of the sky to find the location of the sun with its sun-safe finder. Once it locates the sun, it begins to track the sun and keep it centered for photographic or visual purposes. One important recommendation from the company is the set up the unit with the finder pointing to the “left” of the position of the sun. The reason is that once the predicted position is calculated, the unit begins a sweep of the sky in a clockwise direction to locate the sun precisely. If the finder scope is pointing to the “right” of the sun, it may have to rotate nearly a full 360 degrees before seeing the sun. It has a capacity limit of 11 lbs, which is plenty for a small telescope and camera or camera with a long focal length lens. This is an altazimuth mount, and therefore it is not suitable for long-exposure photography due to field rotation. But this mount is designed specifically for viewing and photographing the sun with very short exposures.
The unit arrived about 2 weeks before the October eclipse. This allowed plenty of time to get familiar with the unit. The unit comes with a tripod with leveling bubbles. Included is a battery pack (requires 8 AA batteries) and an adapter for a 12V DC power supply (power supply not included). Also included is an accessory tray for being able to quickly change eyepieces or other items. It is recommended to level the tripod before starting for best results. Assembly was easy with only a few parts to put together. The instructions say to point the unit slightly to the left (east) of the position of the sun and turn on the power. At first, the unit will level the finder scope and allow the GPS to determine the location, time, and calculated position of the sun. Next, it will point at the predicted altitude of the sun and then begin to rotate clockwise to precisely locate the sun with its HelioFind scope. Once it finds the sun, it will continue to track as long as it has power. If the sun is not exactly centered, there is also a joystick switch to nudge to mount until the sun is precisely centered, and the correction can be locked in by double-pressing the power button. For those who are planning on remote viewing or photographing, the batteries will continue to track for at least enough time for an entire solar eclipse. I am not sure if the HelioFind scope is necessary to continue tracking or if the tracking is strictly mechanical. In other words, it may or may not be able to track during long periods of cloud cover after initially finding the sun.
How Does it Perform?
I took the unit outside a few days before the eclipse on a clear and cloudless day. As per the instructions, I leveled the tripod, pointed slightly east of the sun, and pushed the power button. I was using a Canon EOS Ra camera, Televue Ranger telescope with a proper white light Thousand Oaks Optical filter to determine the position of the sun. The finder scope first leveled itself to point horizontally, and after about 30 seconds, it rose to an appropriate altitude and began sweeping clockwise until it stopped and was pointing in what appeared to be the direction of the sun. In the camera viewfinder, the sun was nearly in the center. With the joystick switch, I made fine adjustments until the sun was perfectly centered, and I locked in the position with the power button. I then took a few snapshots and then let it run. I came back a few hours later to find the sun had drifted slightly, but the sun was still well within the field of view, and certainly in good position to capture the corona during totality. So overall, I would say no adjustments would be necessary during the entire 2-3 hour course of an eclipse. I plan on using this mount for the 2024 eclipse in my planned location northwest of Austin, Texas, near the center line.
A few months later, near the winter solstice, I again tested the mount. This time the sky conditions were not as good. It started with a high thin overcast with the sun visible through the clouds. The mount was able to easily locate the sun. I let the mount run for about 3 hours. The clouds had thickened considerably to a heavier overcast with only the glow of the sun still visible through the clouds. Checking the camera viewfinder revealed that the sun was still nearly dead center. So I am confident that this mount will continue tracking through cloudy intervals.
- Very easy setup
- Accurate pointing
- Reliable tracking with no or few clouds
- No 12V adapter
Verdict 5/5 Stars
This mount is perfectly suited for solar observing or photographing. It is easy to set up, and the tracking is very reliable for at least as long as a total solar eclipse will take from start to finish. It is a no-brainer for anyone interested in automating solar tracking for a variety of purposes.