CHAPTER 3: Choosing a Telescope — What’s New?Chapter_3__Choosing_a_Telescope.htmlChapter_3__Choosing_a_Telescope.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0
 
Telescope News & 
Reviews (January 2012)

The economic slowdown is shaking out the telescope business, as it is all other areas of the economy. Even before the recession’s onset in late 2008, some telescope companies were in trouble, due to tough competition from bargain Chinese products, and a lull in consumer interest in telescopes following a peak buying spree a few years earlier when high-profile astronomical events like Mars were in the news.

Yes, some companies have disappeared. But others are moving in to take their place: some new, others existing, but expanding their presence to take advantage of market opportunities. What follows is some of what’s new, updating our book. This is not meant to be a complete listing of new products but a highlight of new offerings that caught our attention. First...

COMPANIES THAT ARE NO MORE

On page 44 of the original Third Edition of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, we mention several brands of premium Dobsonians made by small companies, often one-person shops operating out of basements or garages. As you might expect, such operations are volatile. Several seem to have disappeared:

Anttlers Optics
Discovery Telescopes
• Night Sky Telescopes
MCTelescopes
StarSplitter Telescopes
StarStucture Telescopes (lacking any website now)
Round Table Platforms (tracking platforms for Dobsonians)




NEW PRODUCT TRENDS I:
DOBS GO HIGH-TECH

However ... balancing the loss of boutique Dobsonian companies is the trend to much greater availability from mainline companies of good, low-cost Dobsonians with truss-tube designs. Previously, you had no option but to go to a specialized manufacturer and pay a premium price to get a truss-tube Dob. Now, following Meade Instruments’ lead with their excellent LightBridge series (see p. 43), other “big-name” companies have stepped in to offer Dobs with sectional and portable tube assemblies.

In mid-2008, Sky-Watcher (a.k.a. Synta Optical from China) introduced their “Collapsible” Dobsonian series, sold as FlexTube models in some countries. Available in 8-, 10, and 12.5-inch apertures (for $400, $600, and $1,000 respectively), these telescopes offer a tube with a front end on rails that slides down the bottom half of the tube (it “telescopes!”) to make the tube more compact for transport. The optics stay in excellent collimation and the fit and finish is very good. Cost is higher than the solid-tube Dobs we praise in our book (p. 54), but the classic solid-tube models are likely on the way out, except perhaps in 6-inch beginner models.  

Sky-Watcher in Canada has developed versions of these Collapsible Dobs (at top left) with computerized Go To and Tracking systems, for $400 to $500 above the cost of the standard models. We’ve tested the 12-inch and it works great. The Go To is easy to set up and is accurate; the tracking works great, keeping objects centred for hours. 

Orion Telescopes now offers this same Synta-developed Go To technology on their 8-, 10-, and 12.5-inch sold-tube SkyQuests Dobs (for $850, $1,100 and $1,600 respectively). The nice thing about both brands of Go To Dobs is that it is still possible to push the telescope around the sky and not lose alignment. Motions are not as smooth as with a conventional Dob but it is nice to have options for both motorized and manual slewing.

Orion Telescopes does not offer a truss-tube Dob until you move to their new 12-inch SkyQuest XX12 (left) or 14-inch model, with trusses that disassemble into four pairs. While more complex to set up than the Sky-Watchers (where the tube stays together and slides up and down), the break-apart trusses of the Orion SkyQuests do make for a more compact scope when stored. 

Orion offers the XX12 as a package with cases for all the bits, plus a tube shroud (you’ll want them!), and their “push-to” Intelliscope computer for $1,600. Move up to the full Go To model and you’ll pay $2,200. However, that’s still a bargain compared to the cost of Go To Dob (indeed a Go To scope of any type with 12-inch aperture) from one of the specialized Dob makers such as Obsession and Starmaster. True, the new affordable Go To Dobs lack furniture grade finish and premium hand-crafted optics, but for the money their value is terrific.


NEW PRODUCT TRENDS II:
YET MORE APO REFRACTORS!

With optics sourced from China, Taiwan and Russia, many dealers and companies are offering excellent apochromatic refractors at previously unheard of prices: $2,000 for a triplet 4-inch ED apo for example. Color correction, especially in the triplets, is excellent. Focusers and fittings are also well-made. This is the golden age of the apo!

An up-and-coming name is Astro-Tech, primarily sold through Astronomics in the U.S. They offer apos from 66mm to 111mm apertures, in lower-cost doublet and higher-cost triplet models. The 106mm f/6.5 triplet (shown at left) is a bargain at $2,100. Color correction is first class.

Also available from Astronomics is the highly-regarded TMB (Thomas M. Back) Signature-Series of triplet apos with, again, breakthrough prices. We love the new 92mm f/5.5 scope (left) — it’s ultra-compact, bino-viewer friendly, fast for imaging, and has superb color correction. A great photo-visual scope for $2,000. See our blog for more information.

A European player set to make inroads in North America is the newly renamed Officina Stellare, formerly AstroEngineering/A&M. We show two of their superb apos on page 56 of our book. The hallmark of these Italian-made refractors are their carbon-fibre tubes, designer colors, and first-class Russian optics, often with Thomas Back designs. As of this writing, models are available thru a U.S dealer Teton Telescope. Prices are premium, but the prestige is high! 

Telescope Engineering Company has introduced a limited-edition 110mm f/5.6 apo (not pictured) that, at $4,500, is definitely for the aficionado. 

Meanwhile, Vic Maris and his California company Stellarvue continues to expand an extensive line of apos, from 70mm to 160mm. Particularly attractive is the slick new carbon-fiber 105mm f/7 Raptor (pictured at left, in black) for $2,500. Many models are often in stock, but some require buyers be placed on waiting lists for several weeks or months.

In the lower cost league, a new startup company, Explore Scientific, founded by ex-Meade employee Scott Roberts, is offering an 80mm f/6 ED triplet for $800 (left), a 102mm f/7 ED triplet for $1,500, and a 127mm f/7.5 triplet for $2,000. Again, all with appealing prices and features. We’ve tested the 127mm for SkyNews magazine and were mightily impressed: excellent optics and fittings at a breakthrough price.

Taiwan-based William Optics, who have made some superb refractors, continues to advertise a wide lineup. The FLT 98mm f/6.3 (left) should make a great photo-visual scope. However, their products are now often available only thru their on-line store and not through local dealers. We certainly have praised WO products in print, both in our book and in reviews, but customers will now have a more difficult time getting them.

Even Orion Telescopes has entered the carbon-fibre league with its ED102T triplet apo with FPL53 glass for $2,000. Its f/7 focal ratio is a little slower and the tube a little longer than we’d like to see in a 4-inch apo, but this is certainly another very attractive scope at this price. If you do wish to use this or most any apo for deep-sky imaging factor in the required field flattener as well. Orion’s is an extra $125.

Not to be left out of the high-end apo market, Synta Sky-Watcher has introduced two triplet SuperEd apos: the Esprit 120mm f/7 ($4,000, pictured at left) and the Esprit 150mm f/7 ($7,000). Each comes with a dedicated field flattener for imaging. We’ve tested the 120mm and it works beautifully, with optical quality equal to the best, and (with the field flattener) absolutely pinpoint images across a full frame DSLR chip.


NEW PRODUCT TRENDS III:
THE BRIEF RETURN OF THE MAK-NEWT

This hybrid design is illustrated on page 37 and discussed briefly on page 46 of Chapter 3. Several years ago, Maksutov-Newtonians were all the rage, praised for their refractor-like images, flat field, and versatility for visual use for all kinds of objects, from wide-field deep-sky to high-power planetary viewing. Most units came from Russia, but seemed to fall out of favor when the influx of Chinese-made telescopes took hold.

Mak-Newts have attempted a small comeback. The new company Explore Scientific has a Mak-Newt as a centerpiece of their product line. Designed in conjunction with renowned astronomer David Levy, the Comet Hunter (left) is a 152mm (6-inch) f/4.8 with a slick carbon-fibre tube and enough back focus to allow it to work with most cameras. With a wide flat field and fast speed, it should work fine for imaging. And with a central obstruction of just 30 percent, its visual resolution at high power shouldn’t be too compromised. However, visually, the strength of this telescope is for wide-field sweeping, thus the “Comet Hunter” name. Cost for the tube assembly only is about $1,200.

Meanwhile, Synta/Sky-Watcher (outside the U.S.) sells a 190mm (7.5-inch) f/5.3 Mak-Newt (left). The metre-long tube weighs 22 pounds, so this large scope will require a hefty mount, especially if it is to be used for photography. It promises a flat field ideal for imaging with large chip cameras. However, a similar unit sold by Orion is no longer offered. Buyers tend to be put off by the weight and long cool-down time of Mak-Newts, despite their superb image quality for all objects.


NEW PRODUCT TRENDS IV:
GOING WHERE NO NEWTONIAN HAS GONE BEFORE

Newtonian reflectors as fast as f/4, or a shocking f/3!, were usually considered poor compromises, surely sacrificing optical quality for compactness. But now, a new generation of Newtonians offers super-fast mirrors and high-quality optics. The essential ingredient, in addition to a well-made primary mirror – not an easy task with focal ratios as fast as f/3.3 – is a coma corrector, like the unit made by Al Nagler and TeleVue. 

One trend satisfies visual observers seeking large aperture without having to stand on ladders. For this market, Starmaster Telescopes offers their Super FX Series of 20- to 30-inch Dobsonians. At f/3.3, the 20-inch allows seated observing over the entire sky! The bigger scopes need only a small step stool. But prices start at $15,000!

Less costly are Obsession Telescope’s 15- and 18-inch UC models (Dave Kriege shows the 15-inch UC at left), both f/4.2 units. The minimalist design is another new development picked up by Orion in their UltraPortable and outrageously expensive and impractical Monster Dob series! 

The other trend is to fast f/4 Newtonians for imaging. Orion and Astro-Tech both offer these, at very low prices ($300 for the 6-inch Astro-Tech pictured at left). Again, a coma corrector is essential for imaging with anything but a very small-chip CCD camera. Increased baffling and rigid focusers round out the features for astrophotography. These are instruments best bought for imaging. Do not buy one if visual is your main use, unless it is just for low-power deep-sky viewing. The stickler with these fast Newts will be the need for precise collimation. Plan to collimate each night.


NEW PRODUCT TRENDS V:
THE MARKETING OF RITCHEY-CHRÉTIENS

Telescopes take their turn as the anointed favorites among astrophotographers. In the 1980s it was Schmidt-Cassegrains. In the 1990s it was big apo refractors. Now, it is the Ritchey-Chrétien Cassegrain reflector. The stunning images taken with these instruments by top astrophotographers inspire the rest of us to copy their work, if only by buying the same stuff. But come on now! Who can afford the $15,000 to $40,000 for a top-end RC-scope? Only doctors and software tycoons. (Used to be stock market gurus, too, but not now!)

So what about the rest of us? It was inevitable — just as we saw Chinese and Taiwanese companies bring apo refractors down out of the stratosphere, so we are with RCs as well. Orion Telescopes has entered the low-cost RC fray with two instruments, a 6-inch f/9 ($800), an 8-inch f/8 ($1,200) (shown at left in white) and 10-inch f/8 ($2,700). Their benefit is a flat field (compared to most other reflectors such as Newtonians), meaning that stars are sharp across the entire field of view. 

With similar offerings is Astro-Tech/Astronomics, with their 6-inch f/9 ($800), 8-inch f/8 ($1,400) (shown at left, in black), and 10-inch f/8 ($2,700). The 8 differs from the Orion version in having a carbon fibre tube which should minimize focus shift as temperature changes. All these low-cost RCs use a good two-speed Crayford focuser similar to units found on many import telescopes. Elsewhere in the world identical RCs are sold under the original Guan Sheng Optical brand name, the Taiwanese source for many of the telescopes sold in North America under various “house” brands. 

Not to be outdone, Vixen of Japan has a competing design, their VISAC, that uses a sub-diameter corrector lens mounted just in front the secondary mirror, plus field flattener lenses near the focus. Their VC200L is an 8-inch f/9 ($1,800) that has been around for a while (we mention it on page 46). But anyone considering an RC might want to have another look at the Vixen.

Other companies are offering high-end RC telescopes: Deep-Sky Instruments is another new player (left is their 10-inch for $7,000) ...

... while Starizona has introduced their Hyperion 12.5-inch astrograph (left, below) for $10,000. As appealing as all these Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes might be, keep in mind these are advertised quite properly as astrographs. That means they are optimized for deep-sky imaging, not observing. To fully illuminate the camera field, the secondary mirrors are huge, blocking 40 to 50 percent of the aperture by diameter. That level of obstruction will certainly compromise the contrast and resolution of planetary views, both visually and photographically. So be warned!

What these Cassegrain astrographic telescopes are good for is shooting galaxies, globular clusters and planetary nebulas — small deep sky objects needing the 1,400 to 1,800 mm of focal length offered by these f/8 or f/9 systems. Nevertheless, the availability of low-cost imaging cameras like the Orion Parsec and CCD Lab’s QHY8 means a lot more people will be attracted to astrophotography, all hoping to emulate the photos they see taken with high-end RCs but at a fraction of the cost. And with patience and persistence, the new low-cost gear should deliver decent results. But the patience needed for great photos can’t be bought.


NEW PRODUCT TRENDS VI:
TAKING TELESCOPES TO A HIGHER TECH

When Meade Instruments introduces a new high-tech scope it certainly creates a buzz. Their Autostar-equipped telescopes started the Go To revolution in the early 1990s, which evolved with their addition of GPS receivers and compasses on board, so users wouldn’t need to enter their location or time, nor aim the telescope to north, something many buyers find a puzzle. Up to now, users still had to aim the scope at and center 2 or 3 bright stars to complete the initial “alignment” of any Go To system, to calibrate the computer to the actual sky. Now, Meade’s innovative new LightSwitch telescopes (left) do away with that step, too.

That protrusion below the tube is a small, low-res camera that takes an image of the sky during setup, finding the stars you would otherwise manually center in the eyepiece to complete the alignment. The telescope aligns itself! That in itself is pretty neat, but the advances continue with Meade combining their successful and well-honed Autostar™ with the audio and video content of their now-discontinued MySky™ hand-held pointing device. The merging of the software of the MySky with the Go To hardware of the Meade scopes was inevitable. What you get is a telescope that will talk to you as it takes you on a tour of the sky, and — if you hook up a video monitor (an optional extra) to the scope’s video-out jack — the scope will also show you images, movies and animations of the objects on its tour. Meade calls it their “Astronomer Inside™” technology. Well, the thought of a little astronomer shrunk down and dropped into the scope to talk to you sounds a little odd, but isn’t that what this Go To tech should be doing? — capturing the expertise of astronomers and playing it back on demand to tour you around the sky?

The initial LightSwitch model was a 6-inch f/10, with either Schmidt-Cassegrain optics ($1,300) or Meade’s flat-field Advanced Coma Free (ACF) design ($1,500). A new 8-inch ACF LightSwitch sells for $2,000.

To compete with Meade’s LightSwitches Celestron has announced their SkyProdigy series (two at left) that also feature a built-in camera and self-aligning technology. Initial models are beginner scopes: a 70mm refractor, 90mm Maksutov, and 130mm Newtonian. Beginners will certainly benefit the most from telescopes that align themselves but at $700 to $800 these are pretty pricey telescopes, too costly for beginners but without enough serious aperture and features to interest the more advanced tech-savvy buyer. The SkyProdigy line lacks the multimedia tours the Meades offer.

The LightSwitch telescopes represent a natural evolution of Go To systems, moving us beyond the crude two-line displays of current hand controllers into a richer multimedia experience at the scope. If it excites people, turns them onto the sky, and teaches them more than they would otherwise learn, why not? Bring it on!

But it has to work. When the first LightSwitches reached customers user-group websites such as Mike Weasner’s Mighty ETX had comments from buyers reporting on a number of technical issues with their ETX-LS. Early adopters often have to sort through bugs in any new high-tech product. 

Ditto on Meades’s new LX800 series (left). These astrophoto systems (with telescopes or as a mount only, from $6,000 on up) feature a unique integrated autoguiding system, a first for a mount and one that does not require an outboard computer to operate. As of January 2012, models were still just photos in ads and on websites and were not yet available for purchase. However, they do promise to provide attractive choices for anyone in the market for a high-end astrophoto system.

At the entry-level end of the scale, the LightSwitches and SkyProdigies might be only the start of another high-tech revolution. After all, many of us have advanced multimedia players in our pockets now — our Blackberries, Android phones, iPhones, and iPod Touches. Then there’s the iPad. It already has software and hardware that allows it to connect to telescopes. See the webpage for Chapter 14. What if these smart devices could also talk to us and display media as they take us and our scope on a tour of the heavens? Then any Go To scope could become a multimedia teaching tool. 

Perhaps we’ll see this next level of technology in the next year. Telescopes are about to get a lot more interesting! It’ll be fun — and isn’t that what the hobby is all about?

— Alan Dyer, Revised January 2012
(most photos gleaned from manufacturer and dealer websites)
http://www.meade.com/lightbridge/index.htmlhttp://www.skywatcherusa.com/products/telescopes/dobsonian-telescope/http://synta.en.alibaba.com/http://www.skywatchertelescope.net/swtinc/index2.phphttp://www.telescope.com/control/category/~category_id=gotodobs/~pcategory=dobsonianshttp://www.telescope.com/control/product/~category_id=dobsonians/~pcategory=telescopes/~product_id=24757http://www.astronomics.com/main/category.asp/catalog_name/Astronomics/category_name/K56U1T2Q7KWF8GDVGLKVBN1PL3/Page/1http://www.astronomics.com/main/TMB_Optical_Telescopes.asp/TMB/Telescopes/catalog_name/Astronomics/category_name/0JVW4BJ3P5868N5E5DFH8JE1Q5/Page/1http://www.officinastellare.com/http://www.tetontelescope.com/index.phphttp://www.telescopengineering.com/http://www.stellarvue.com/http://explorescientific.com/http://www.skynews.ca/http://www.williamoptics.com/http://http://www.telescope.com/control/product/~category_id=refractors/~pcategory=telescopes/~product_id=09530http://explorescientific.com/http://www.skywatchertelescope.net/swtinc/index2.phphttp://www.starmastertelescopes.com/http://www.obsessiontelescopes.com/index.phphttp://www.telescope.com/control/category/~category_id=updobs/~pcategory=dobsonianshttp://www.telescope.com/control/category/~category_id=monsterdobs/~pcategory=dobsonianshttp://www.astronomics.com/main/category.asp/catalog_name/Astronomics/category_name/W783G2XG7GFD9G312JK1P6GQ65/Page/1http://www.astronomics.com/main/category.asp/catalog_name/Astronomics/category_name/W783G2XG7GFD9G312JK1P6GQ65/Page/1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritchey-Chr%C3%A9tien_telescopehttp://www.telescope.com/control/category/~category_id=astro-imaging_scopes/~pcategory=astro-imaginghttp://www.astronomics.com/main/category.asp/catalog_name/Astronomics/category_name/U5QNWB3RKWWL8N3EL99F9DX9A0/Page/1http://www.gs-telescope.com/http://www.vixenoptics.com/http://www.deepskyinstruments.com/http://www.deepskyinstruments.com/http://www.hyperiontelescopes.com/http://www.telescope.com/control/astrophotography/astrophotography-camerashttp://www.qhyccd.com/http://www.meade.com/etx-ls/index.htmlhttp://www.celestron.com/c3/category.php?CatID=122http://www.weasner.com/etx/menu.htmlChapter_14__Go_To_Telescopes.htmlshapeimage_4_link_0shapeimage_4_link_1shapeimage_4_link_2shapeimage_4_link_3shapeimage_4_link_4shapeimage_4_link_5shapeimage_4_link_6shapeimage_4_link_7shapeimage_4_link_8shapeimage_4_link_9shapeimage_4_link_10shapeimage_4_link_11shapeimage_4_link_12shapeimage_4_link_13shapeimage_4_link_14shapeimage_4_link_15shapeimage_4_link_16shapeimage_4_link_17shapeimage_4_link_18shapeimage_4_link_19shapeimage_4_link_20shapeimage_4_link_21shapeimage_4_link_22shapeimage_4_link_23shapeimage_4_link_24shapeimage_4_link_25shapeimage_4_link_26shapeimage_4_link_27shapeimage_4_link_28shapeimage_4_link_29shapeimage_4_link_30shapeimage_4_link_31shapeimage_4_link_32shapeimage_4_link_33shapeimage_4_link_34shapeimage_4_link_35shapeimage_4_link_36shapeimage_4_link_37shapeimage_4_link_38
Chapter 3 of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide contains 36 pages of detailed information about telescope types, how to choose a telescope, and specific advice on dozens of models. This section of the website updates, but does not replace, that chapter. For the complete picture, we refer you to our book.Backyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlBackyard_Astronomers_Guide.htmlshapeimage_17_link_0shapeimage_17_link_1