Telescope Reviews

Page 21 By Ed Ting Updated 6/28/06

Click on a Telescope Below: 1) Night Sky Scopes 16" Dob (Mechanical structure only) 2) Starmaster 11" f/4.3 ELT "Shorty" 3) TeleVue 76 4) Orion Starblast
1) Night Sky Scopes 16" Dob Structure 5/20/02, 5/25/02, 6/28/06 (16" f/4.5 Dob structure, $1750 + shipping, many configurations available) (Note: As of 2008, Night Sky Scopes is no longer in business) A few years ago, Jim Nadeau was an enthusiastic amateur just like you and me. Like many observers with woodworking skills, he made modifications to his commercial telescope (in his case, a 12.5" Meade Starfinder.) Soon he was building telescope structures for his friends. One thing led to another, and now he's in business for himself. Night Sky Telescopes sells Dob structures from 12.5" to 18" in varying focal lengths. You tell Jim what optics you have; he'll build a structure around it.
The 16" Night Sky Structure
According to Nadeau, the sample I received represents the best-seller in the Night Sky stable - a 16" f/4.5 structure designed around the primary from a 16" Meade Starfinder. As it turned out, there were two of these mirrors available in our club - the one from Tubby, the 16" Dob reviewed earlier, and a solitary mirror from another Starfinder Dob that met an unfortunate end in someone's basement that got flooded (if you think the end of The Wizard of Oz is scary, when the Wicked Witch of the West melts into the ground, imagine seeing little bloated pieces of Sonotube and particle board floating in your basement.) Why would anyone want to go through the trouble of buying a mirror and structure separately? A complete 16" scope like the one pictured can be had for $2750 + shipping. This is hundreds to thousands less than comparable high-zoot competitive Dobs. If you want, Night Sky will supply Meade, Pegasus, or Swayze optics for you. If the price already sounds reasonable, consider the fact that the Telrad, shroud, and wheelbarrow handles are included. Many other premium Dob manufacturers charge extra for one or more of these accessories. Several upgrades are available, including a battery-operated electrical package. I'd had a long, stressful day at work. Arriving home, I got a nice surprise. Four massive cartons were blocking the garage door. The Night Sky structure had arrived! The quality of the packing was superb and it took me a while to get all the parts laid out. I began the minor assembly that's required. The side bearings need to be attached, as does the secondary assembly. All in all, it took me about two hours to get everything unpacked, put together, and collimated. If you need help, Jim supplies a short video showing how everything goes together. Not knowing what to expect, I was concerned that the mechanical structure would be...well, a little homemade looking. A lot of people bring me their half-finished projects, looking for my opinions. Any such thoughts about this Night Sky product were immediately banished when I opened up the cartons. The stuff looks really nice! Almost everyone who came by commented on how professional- looking the woodworking looked. Nadeau has taken mechanical and styling cues from varying sources, but the structure most resembles the Starmaster units. Like the Starmasters, it's on the large and heavy side. The scope weighs in at about 125 lbs, including the 22 lb 16" Meade mirror. For reference, this is a little more than Obsession's 20" model. Much of the weight, however, comes from the mirror cell.
Nice mirror cell
Jim is justifiably proud of that cell. The solid welded ladder-type structure features an 18-point flotation cell, and the entire unit, mirror included, is removable. This type of cell, while heavier, tends to hold collimation more tightly than the sling-type units. The four truss poles are welded into a solid "A" frame, and have captive hardware. Again, the woodworking is of a higher quality than I expected - the surfaces are very smooth and the varnish is so shiny I can practically see my reflection in it (sadly, the photos here don't show this very well.) Once I got the scope outside, I got another pleasant surprise. The motions are velvety smooth, right up there with the best of them. Tracking is a pleasure up to about 175X-200X, and once, while looking at the Eskimo at over 400X, I found myself still tracking well by hand, with no backlash or sticking points. The motions are just a little stiffer than the Obsession or Starmaster bearings, which is either a slight plus or a slight minus, depending on your biases. I'm trying to keep my comments confined to the mechanical structure, but the Meade Starfinder mirror seems to reach its potential with the improved mechanics. "The Night Sky structure sets the Meade mirror free," said one observer. Complaints were all minor. Two of the four nylon washers between the rocker box and the wheelbarrow handles fell off during the review period (epoxy to the rescue!) Also, I prefer the eyepiece angled upwards about twenty degrees or so from where this one is placed. This is a matter of personal preference though - Obsession places the eyepiece in the same location, as does Starmaster on its larger units. The smaller Starmasters angle the eyepiece upwards. Those of you who know me well know that I've had a personal moratorium against purchasing equipment for the past couple of years. It is ridiculous of me to buy any more telescopes, and I was slowly going broke anyway buying up all the cool stuff that passed through my hands. Nevertheless, the combination of the Night Sky structure's high quality, its professional-grade finish, and its very reasonable price made this too hard to resist. I bought the review sample. Update, 5/25/02: Jim at Night Sky Scopes reports that new models are about 12-15 lbs lighter than the one I received. Also, he will drill the upper truss to rotate the eyepiece up, but you must specify this at the time of order. Finally, new units will have a clear sticker on the upper truss showing model# and serial#. 2) Starmaster 11" f/4.3 ELT "Shorty" 5/20/02, 5/25/02 (11" f/4.3 Dobsonian reflector, $2795 + shipping, options) Those of you who know me well know that I've had a personal moratorium against purchasing equipment in effect for the past couple of years. Nevertheless, my willpower and my wallet were sorely tested again this spring with the introduction of these cute little "Shorty" Starmasters. I first saw the prototype at the 2001 Black Forest Star Party in PA. While I was there chatting with Rick Singmaster in his booth, more than one person came by offering to buy his personal sample. This was a good sign.
The Shorty, at Black Forest in 2001
The Shorty is similar to the 11" f/5.4 ELT, but is about a foot shorter, and about 6 lbs lighter. This may not sound like much of a difference, but late at night, in a cold observing field, you learn to be thankful for little things like this. Also, the decreased height means that most observers can remain seated while observing, even with the scope on a tracking platform. Sitting down reduces both the physical and mental strain while observing, and you tend to stay fresh and alert longer. The Shorty's low eyepiece height also makes this an ideal telescope if you observe a lot with children. The Zambuto optics are stunning as usual. Even with the increased secondary size compared to the "normal" ELT, I noticed no difference in planetary image quality. Jupiter and Saturn looked razor sharp and highly detailed, given the right conditions. A shadow transit on Jupiter was pinpoint-sharp one evening. On the other hand, if you like to do wide-field, low power observing, you're going to have a lot of fun with this scope. A nice stunt to do is to find a dark site, put in a 31 mm Nagler, screw in a narrowband filter, and look at the North America Nebula. The wide field, sharp optics, and decent light- gathering power makes for a really nice view. The same combination also works well on the Veil. The Double Cluster was a big crowd pleaser at a recent public skywatch. The scope is designed to be used with a Paracorr (not included.) The scope won't even balance correctly without one. Even with the Paracorr in place, the scope is a little back heavy. This might cause a problem if you like to switch out eyepieces a lot; the scope may have drifted upwards by the time you get the next eyepiece in place. One owner suggests rigging a velcro and beanbag system, another suggests doing nothing since it doesn't bother him. On the other hand, the scope balances just fine if you use a binoviewer (the f/5.4 ELT ends to become front heavy with a binoviewer in place.)
7" Oak Classic, and its spiritual successor? Note the eyepiece heights are nearly identical
There are a few options. I like the secondary heater. It's only $45, and keeps a dewed up secondary from ending your evening early. You can also select a beautiful Feathertouch focuser, or digital setting circles. Delivery varies, but as of this writing you can get one within a few months. If you have always wanted one of the late, lamented Starmaster 7" f/5.6 Oak Classics, but have been unable to locate one (or have been unwilling to pay the inflated prices on the used market) I think these Shorties may be their spiritual successors. The eyepiece height is about the same, and they seem to share the same sense of personality and "fun." One owner even refers to his scope as if it were a person (ie, "Hey guys - if it's clear out tonight, let get Shorty and go observing.") In fact, at least three local club members have gone ahead and bought one, even though they already own the f/5.4 ELTs. That's a pretty strong testimonial. If you think you want one, I'd act now while they're still available. Who knows what they'll be worth down the road? Very highly recommended. Update, 5/25/02: According to Starmaster, new units will be f/4.5. The extra few inches will alleviate the balance issue described above, but will still preserve the "Shorty" character of the scope. 3) TeleVue 76 Refractor 1/13/03 (76 mm f/6.3 apochromatic doublet refractor, 2" diagonal, 20 mm Plossl, case, $1700 street) (OTA and case only also available, about $1300 street) "Stuff in our hobby is getting better and worse at the same time." I was talking to a fellow astro buddy on the phone about equipment recently. "Hmmm," I said. "How do you mean?"
The TeleVue 76, unveiled at Stellafane 2001 by Al Nagler (w/ hat)
"The really good stuff keeps getting better and more expensive. Look at the equipment from Astro-Physics and Starmaster, for example. Every time you turn around the price keeps going up. On the other hand, you have a bunch of guys who seem to be in competition to see how low they can bomb the price on the Chinese stuff. Have you looked at your Orion catalog lately?" I confessed I had. The telescopes in the latest printing were so cheap I was tempted to order everything in the catalog, just to have stuff to play with. Actually, he may have been a little harsh on the low end stuff. Telescopes coming from China are optically and mechanically OK these days, and some of them are a even little more than that. But I can see his point. TeleVue is one of the companies trying to make stuff better. TeleVue scopes are not cheap, but they're far from the most expensive. The TV76 is the latest, and smallest, in their fine apo doublet line. Like the TV85, it uses a Pronto-sized tube with a slightly larger lens cell assembly. Unlike the Pronto, it comes with the balance aid which you will need because the scope is quite back-heavy. At first glance, you may mistake the TV76 for a Pronto (as I have, in the dark, a few times already.) However, it is a healthy leap in performance above its slightly smaller brother. The color correction is superb, and the two samples in our local astronomy club exhibit almost no spherical aberration. Put a Pronto and a TV76 on Jupiter above 100X and there's no doubt which scope is which.
The TV76 mounted atop the TV102 (Mount: Losmandy GM-8)
I asked club member Dan S, who normally favors big Dobsonian reflectors, why he bought his TV76. Dan normally doesn't go for this sort of thing. "Think of it this way, Ed. The first three inches are the most important. A three inch scope amounts to something like a four magnitude gain over the unaided eye. To get another four magnitude gain over the three inch, you'd have to get something in the twenty four to thirty inch range." I can see what he's saying. One needn't take this line of reasoning too far, however. A three inch scope is still a three inch scope, and you're eventually going to run out of things to look at, particularly if you favor deep sky objects. If you like to look at planets, the moon, and double stars, however, the TV76 could make you happy for a long time. There was a time, not terribly long ago, when splitting Polaris was said to be a good test for a three inch scope. In today's brave new apochromatic world, however, splitting Polaris is something of a joke. Polaris is easy. The double-double is easy. Zeta Aquarius (2.0 arc seconds) is not hard. Even Delta Cygnus -a good test even for a four inch- was split, albeit barely. Images of Saturn and Jupiter are razor sharp in good seeing, and you can routinely push 200X if your conditions allow it. Club member Chase M has taken some stunning astropohotos with his TV76-based rig (luxuriously using his TV102 as a guidescope!) With a 35 mm Panoptic and a 2" H-Beta filter, the California Nebula was seen even from suburban skies. Many people attack problem objects like the California the wrong way, using aperture and magnification. The correct way to go after this troublesome object is to find good dark skies, use a high-contrast scope like an apo, and drop the power as low as you comfortably can. In a similar vein, using a 35 mm Panoptic and a 2" OIII filter will reveal the entire Veil, including Pickering's Wedge. The entire North America Nebula (with Pelican) is also easy under dark skies. And as long as you don't go crazy, the TV76 will pull in most of the brighter galaxies and clusters.
The North America Nebula, taken by club member Chase M through his TV76. If you think this looks good, you should see the uncompressed original.
You can use a small mount like a TeleVue Gibraltar (the Panoramic is too light) or something in the Super Polaris/Great Polaris/CG5 class (be sure you have the Televue/SP plate adapter) but if you plan to do any photography or high power work, a GM8 wouldn't be out of line. Since my review of the Oracle 3 (TeleVue's rare 76 mm triplet apo from a few years ago), some of you have asked me where you can get one. As much as I like the Oracle, you should know that this new TV76 supercedes it in every way. Images are sharper and more contrasty, and the new tube ring is drilled for finders (the Oracle's isn't.) The new focuser is better too. If you've always wanted an Oracle 3, trust me: get the TV76 instead. All of the doublet apos in the TeleVue line -the TV76, the TV85, and the TV102- are highly recommended. Performance-wise, they seem to be cut from the same cloth. Pick the one that suits your needs and budget. 4) Orion Starblast 8/1/03 (4.5" f/4 Dobsonian Newtonian, 17 mm, 6 mm Kellners, Red Dot Finder, $149 + shipping) I bought this. Because it was there, I guess. Haven't you ever done a star party somewhere and gotten nervous when some kid starts manhandling your expensive optics? I bought this to use at public events as a dedicated kid's scope. The scope is a little short though, even for the youngest kids. Another club member uses a milk crate to solve this problem. He stores his Starblast in the crate when not in use, then turns the crate over and sets the scope on it when he's using it.
Orion's cute little Starblast. Note the milk crate underneath
The scope comes impressively packed, fully assembled, in a large cardboard container. If you're buying this for some kid's birthday party, he is going to be the star of the show while he opens this up. The build quality is very good for a scope this inexpensive - I didn't notice anything cheap at all. The altitude axis even rides on a race of ball bearings - a nice touch. The azimuth axis is also quite smooth. The primary is easy to collimate, and there's a real honest-to-goodness four vane secondary spider. The optics are OK. There's some distortion around the edges. Your kids might not notice, but you serious observers might be bothered by it. You have to struggle a bit to keep the object within the sweet spot of the field of view. The choice of eyepieces is a little puzzling. The 17 mm doesn't seem to go low enough, and the tiny 6 mm is starting to get uncomfortable. And even if you do get yourself used to the little 6 mm, you're only rewarded with 75X. But when I put lower power eyepieces in the scope, the views got even more distorted. Even nice units like the 19 mm or 22 mm Panoptics couldn't quite cope with the steep f/4 light cone coming off the primary. Using high quality short focal length eyepieces like the 4 mm and 6 mm Radians yielded sharp views (though I'm not sure how many observers are going to use $250 eyepieces in a $149 scope.) I swept through the showpiece objects in the sky. I viewed the Double Cluster, M31, M42, M35, Albireo, M45, and even made a gander at the Virgo Cluster (I found about half of the Messier Virgo galaxies when my neck started to get sore from stooping over.) Not bad. Looking at Jupiter, I caught a shadow transit, and briefly glimpsed Cassini's Division, all with the 6 mm eyepiece. Studying the planets requires a little patience between dealing with the short eyepiece and the "sweet spot" issue, but you can more than get the point across to kids and casual observers.
Orion Starblast, and curious observer
So, should you get one? If you have an enthusiastic kid, and don't want to spend $199 on Orion's excellent XT4.5 Dob, you can save yourself $50 and get something a little shorter and easier to carry around. The optics on the Starblast aren't as good, but the mechanics are very nice, the instructions are excellent, the red dot finder will teach your kids (and you) how to locate objects, and the supplied CD ROM will keep you entertained on those rainy nights. But should you get one? Well..... If you're an experienced observer and want a second/third/ fourth/etc. scope to knock around, I'd suggest upgrading to the XT4.5. It'll likely keep your interest a little longer. Note: If you're considering a buying cheap scope from the Orion catalog, I'd recommend this Starblast (with the caveats noted above) over the cheaper but far less substantial FunScope ($89.95) that's usually pictured nearby. The FunScope is a nice idea - a cheaper Astroscan knockoff - but it has limitations. The most serious problem is a tiny plastic tab in the drawtube that serves to hold the eyepiece in place. The tab also aids in focusing - the diagonal cut along the eyepiece barrel slides along the tab. This sounds like a good idea on paper, but this tab has broken off in every FunScope sample I've ever seen, making the scope almost impossible to focus. I recommend holding off buying a FunScope until the manufacturer solves this problem. Update, 8/16/03: A couple of FunScope owners (with an obvious sense of humor) have written to me about the plastic tab in the focuser. "It is SUPPOSED to fall off," writes one reader. "They specially engineer the tab to break off upon first use," writes another, as if the tab is like some intergalactic freshness seal. In any event, once your tab breaks off, you can partially remedy the situation by lining the inside of the drawtube with sticky-back felt. Then you can focus by sliding the eyepiece up and down. One reader even suggests intentionally breaking the tab off yourself, to avoid any suspense! End Telescope Reviews, Page 21
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