A coronagraph is a telescopic attachment designed to block out the direct light from a star so that nearby objects – which otherwise would be hidden in the star’s bright glare – can be resolved. Most coronagraphs are intended to view the corona of the Sun, but a new class of conceptually similar instruments (called stellar coronagraphs to distinguish them from solar coronagraphs) are being used to find extrasolar planets around nearby stars.
The coronagraph was introduced in 1930 by the French astronomer Bernard Lyot; since then, coronagraphs have been used at many solar observatories. Coronagraphs operating within Earth’s atmosphere suffer from scattered light in the sky itself, due primarily to Rayleigh scattering of sunlight in the upper atmosphere. At view angles close to the Sun, the sky is much brighter than the background corona even at high altitude sites on clear, dry days. Ground based coronagraphs, such as the High Altitude Observatory’s Mark IV Coronagraph on top of Mauna Loa, use polarization to distinguish sky brightness from the image of the corona: both coronal light and sky brightness are scattered sunlight and have similar spectral properties, but the coronal light is Thomson-scattered at nearly a right angle and therefore undergoes scattering polarization, while the superimposed light from the sky near the Sun is scattered at only a glancing angle and hence remains nearly unpolarized.
Coronagraphs in outer space are much more effective than the same instruments would be if located on the ground. This is because the complete absence of atmospheric scattering eliminates the largest source of glare present in a terrestrial coronagraph. Several space missions such as NASA-ESA’s SOHO, SPARTAN, and Skylab have used coronagraphs to study the outer reaches of the solar corona. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is able to perform coronagraphy using the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), and there are plans to have this capability on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) using its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
While space-based coronagraphs such as LASCO avoid the sky brightness problem, they face design challenges in stray light management under the stringent size and weight requirements of space flight. Any sharp edge (such as the edge of an occulting disk or optical aperture) causes Fresnel diffraction of incoming light around the edge, which means that the smaller instruments that one would want on a satellite unavoidably leak more light than larger ones would. The LASCO C-3 coronagraph uses both an external occulter (which casts shadow on the instrument) and an internal occulter (which blocks stray light that is Fresnel-diffracted around the external occulter) to reduce this “leakage”, and a complicated system of baffles to eliminate stray light scattering off the internal surfaces of the instrument itself.