The Levenhuk Strike 900 Pro refractor and EQ2 mount.
The burgeoning astronomy enthusiast faces one of the most difficult decisions in the hobby – what to choose for a first telescope? The choice is difficult not only because of the vast range of available options but more so because of a lack of awareness of the viewer’s own preferences and tendencies. Ideally the first instrument will nourish a love of viewing the night sky that will enable the observer to get over any inconveniences or difficulties that might be encountered early in their journey.
I tried to keep these considerations in mind when assembling my impressions of the Levenhuk Strike 900 Pro – an equatorial mounted, long focus refractor kit clearly designed with beginners in mind. Before we start I do want to point out that this telescope was provided by Levenhuk on loan for the purposes of this review and I have spent the past four weeks putting it through its paces.
Follow any discussion of a beginner asking about a first telescope and it won’t be long before an 8″ Dobsonian is suggested. It might be the most recommended scope for beginners, and not without good reason, though there are several factors that should be seriously considered before buying one.
A Dobsonian is a Newtonian reflector on a simple alt-az mount. Before John Dobson popularized his simple, inexpensive mounting method, German equatorial mounts were commonly used, which were by necessity large and heavy, and thus expensive. By comparison an 8″ or greater Dobsonian becomes relatively affordable and portable.
During the Summer of 2013 I started learning the constellations and viewing the night sky from my back yard with a pair of 8×40 binoculars. While these show many more stars than can be seen by eye and are great for viewing wide fields, I quickly became interested in closer views of the Moon, planets, and brighter deep sky objects, and began looking for a small telescope.
I wasn’t sure how much use a telescope would see and I didn’t want to dedicate space to a large one so I was drawn to Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes, which are among the most compact designs, have a reputation for excellent optical performance, and are well suited to viewing the kinds of subjects I was interested in observing.
I found that the Orion StarMax 90mm (that’s the Orion link, here it is at Amazon) and Celestron C90 (B&H, Amazon) both had many good reviews and seemed to offer great value. They are both made by Synta Optical and use a very similar Optical Tube Assembly (OTA). The main reason I preferred the StarMax was that the included accessories seemed more useful for looking at the sky than those that come with the C90, which is configured as a terrestrial spotting scope.
So in late September of 2013, I purchased the Orion StarMax 90mm Mak as my first telescope. What follows are my impressions from using the telescope over the past year and a half.
Explore Scientific Focal Extenders and TeleVue Powermates are examples of Telecentric lenses. Photos are not to scale.
Most of us have been there. You want more magnification then your lowest focal length eyepiece can give so you turn to a multiplier. But wait – Barlows, Powermates, Focal Extenders? Are these interchangeable in use? If not, how do they behave differently at the eyepiece?
My OneSky travelscope in action. This photo was taken before adding the shroud described below.
The surest way to improve any telescope’s performance is to get it out under a darker sky. Living in suburban Massachusetts I’d have to drive significant distances to get to skies much darker than the one available from my red zone backyard. The darkest skies I regularly encounter are on family trips to rural areas.
Of course trying to fit a telescope into a car already packed with the whole family and all the associated cargo can be a challenge. Thus begins the search for a more portable telescope or travelscope. To my thinking a travelscope can be any telescope setup that prioritizes volume and/or weight over other concerns such as aperture or mount stability. Every one has their own circumstances and priorities and so travelscopes can look quite different from observer to observer.
As I mentioned in the general review of the AWB OneSky Telescope, my intent when buying the OneSky was to use it primarily as a travelscope. The OneSky appealed to me for its packed aperture to volume ratio and ease of setup.
Losmandy AZ8 – The included saddles accept both Losmandy D series and Vixen-style dovetails.
Losmandy is primarily known for their precision manufactured German Equatorial Mounts so it’s not surprising that their announcement of a new alt-az mount based on the venerable GM8 has caused some excitement. The Losmandy AZ8 is a medium sized, heavy-duty alt-az mount featuring twin dovetail saddles for dual-scope capability.
The FirstScope and included 20mm and 10mm eyepeices.
Small, inexpensive telescopes have an appeal all their own. Ideally they are simple to use and though they don’t collect the most light or have the highest quality optics or most robust construction, under a clear night sky they can reveal a host of wonders. In practice few of these cheap telescopes actually live up to these aspirations and many of them are so flawed in optics or mechanics as to be more frustrating than fun.
The Celestron FirstScope (you can also find it at Amazon) is a small, 76mm, reflector that has interested me for some time. It is incredibly inexpensive; the regular price is under $50 and I’ve seen it on sale for under $35 from time to time. So what makes the FirstScope any different from countless other cheap telescopes?
The DwarfStar along side 2″ 38mm SWA and 1.25″ 32mm Plossl eyepieces. This photo shows the saddle rotated so the handle mounting block is within the profile of the head for minimum packed size.
A compact but sturdy mount is the foundation of any quick grab or travel observing setup. A mount that is light weight but overly shaky at the eyepiece can sap the joy out of observing, while a solid but heavy mount can be a chore to transport and deploy. When looking for a portable mount to use with small telescopes the path between these two extremes can be a fine line to tread.
Universal Astronomics is a small, New England based manufacturer of astronomical mounts. While researching the options for well built, manual alt-az mounts their products seemed widely recommended so I decided to take a closer look at their line-up. After spending some time on the UA web site and contacting the owner, Larry Patriarca, for his recommendations I chose the DwarfStar for my purposes.
A well designed, compact 5″ telescope and mount for $200? It may sound too good to be true but despite a few caveats this 130mm f/5 reflector is a capable telescope at an outstanding price.
Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) is an organization that offers astronomy outreach programs all over the world. The OneSky telescope is made for Celestron in China and sold in the US by AWB to help fund these programs. My intent in purchasing the OneSky was for use as a travelscope but for now I want to focus on its suitability as a general use telescope.