Conditions were glorious last night - temperatures in teens, seeing and transparency both above average - and I was feeling surprisingly energetic, so I dragged my TEC 140, DM-6, and Berlebach Uni tripod out the door, and walked 15 minutes to my favorite nearby park. I had about 80 pounds of gear with me, but somehow, last night, I found it quite manageable. It was heartening to know that I could transport the TEC 140 without much more difficulty than I used to haul about my dearly departed APM 140.
When I set up shop I noticed that the sky was strikingly dark, and that the stars and planets scarcely twinkled. I immediately plugged in my highest-power Delos eyepiece - which manages 217x - and targeted Jupiter. What a view! I lost track of how many cloud belts I could make out, and subtle detail was everywhere. I was looking at the same hemisphere I had admired about a week ago with the TEC 140, and that same barge I noticed then was still around. Now the Galilean moons looked even more clearly like disks, and therefore like real little worlds.
I decided that the difference between the TEC 140 and the APM 140 lies in the sensation of texture on the planets. More than the APM, the TEC gives me the feeling that the clouds of Jupiter, for example, have depth, which in turns makes it clearer that I'm observing a three-dimensional object. That really makes a profound difference. Both the APM and the TEC provide views that are far better than those of four-inch refractors, including the Takahashi FC-100DZ. There's just so much more contrast visible with the bigger refractors, and on a low-contrast object like Jupiter that means everything.
The view of Saturn was a bit less perfect, just like it was a week ago. While I could easily crank up my magnification past 200x on Jupiter - which is usually about the limit in the Washington, DC air - Saturn benefitted from lower magnification. Still, I was struck by the obvious complexity of its ring system in moments of good seeing. It seemed I could clearly make out not only the Cassini division, but at times I got a flicker of brightness variations, attesting to distinct ring groupings of varying brightness.
After observing Jupiter and Saturn for a while, I wheeled the telescope east to observe the Pleiades at low magnification, which was pleasant but not noticeably different than it is in a smaller refractor. Then I realized that Uranus had climbed well over the horizon, and in fact that it should now be near 37 Ari, a star of very comparable magnitude (5.75 to 6 for Uranus). I've never observed Uranus before. I've tried to find it, but come up empty time and time again. It's actually a little embarrassing; it shouldn't be that hard to identify. So, this time, with the weather perfect and armed with a powerhouse telescope, I decided to give it a try.
The trick was to find Menkar (Alpha Ceti) and Kaffaljidhma (Gamma Ceti) in the constellation Cetus. While these are bright stars - Menkar in particular, at magnitude 2.5 - it's telling that even with atmospheric transparency better than average, I could only barely make them out. DC's light pollution is especially bad to the southeast from my position, which is where the national mall and the rest of the city's downtown area is located. Anyway, once I found those two stars I used them to triangulate Mu Ceti, which at magnitude 4.25 truly was at the edge of my perception.
These three stars in Cetus formed a narrow triangle that pointed to Uranus and 37 Ari. In fact, the length of the triangle was actually greater than the distance of the planet from that triangle. Using my finderscope, I searched. And searched. About 20 minutes went by, and no dice: I could see only stars. I started scanning more broadly, thinking I'd done something wrong. Then I checked my star map - which I get through an app called Stellarium - and suddenly it hit me: I'd been looking for something that looked like a planet. But Uranus is so far away - and therefore so dim - that it should really be indistinguishable from a star at low magnifications. My problem was that I had plugged in my 24mm Panoptic eyepiece, which gave me a magnification of just about 40x. I needed to trust my map and really crank up the power on the star that, I knew, must be Uranus.
So I did. With the high power Delos eyepiece back in and my magnification at 217x, suddenly the planet became obvious: a little grey-green ball, wandering through space. I could make out, at most, only the subtlest detail on that little ball - and really it was virtually featureless. But the thought that that ball was four times the diameter of Earth gave me a rare, visceral sense of the scale of the Solar System. It can be hard to wrap your mind around the reality that the distance between Uranus and Saturn is actually greater than the distance between Saturn and the Sun. Now, at the eyepiece, it seemed obvious. I hadn't found Uranus before because I'd underestimated the size of the Solar System; I didn't imagine that a planet so big could look so small.
It might seem like a drawback of manual mounts that it took me over 20 minutes to find Uranus - not to mention the many times I've searched for the planet and failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you do "star-hop" successfully with a simple mount, the sensation of actually finding what you're looking for is really special, and you don't get that with a go-to mount. You also start to genuinely learn the sky; I'd never thought about the constellation Cetus, for example, but now I know where it is, and I know that its third-brightest star is actually a triple-star system that I'd like to check out someday. That's not to say that star-hopping is always feasible or desirable, especially in the big city. But, as usual, you do give something up by opting for the convenience of modern technology.
A last note on equipment: in recent days, I've ranked the Delos eyepieces, TEC 140, Orion 6x30 finder, DM-6, and Berlebach Uni tripod in comparison with other gear I've used. I've described them as the best I've seen in their class of equipment. Yet I haven't mentioned how well they all fit together. It really is seamless. The DM-6 holds the TEC 140 with perfect ease; there are no jitters, just buttery smooth movement even at high magnifications. The Uni tripod, while light, is an absolute rock, while the finder scope makes it a breeze to hop between stars. And the Delos eyepieces slotted in the TEC 140 provide a glorious view of just about everything. It's all very pricey, of course, but I really recommend this mix.
The walk home was arduous. But, like William Herschel exactly 240 years ago, I'd found a new planet, and that made it easily worthwhile.
The sky is clear this week, but I can't go out every night - with two kids, I just don't have the stamina - so I figured I'd write some reflections on the astronomical accessories that have made an impression over the years, good or bad. Because I have to walk to my observing sites and because, as a father with a demanding job, I don't usually have much time to observe, the equipment that works best for me might not work as well for everyone - and the same applies for the stuff I didn't like.
Still: some thoughts.
The good stuff
Orion 6x30 right-angle finder
I've used countless finders over the years. There were red dot finders from Baader, Celestron, and Riger; there were finder scopes from Celestron, Skywatcher, Explore Scientific, Orion, and Takahashi. Of all the finders that have graced my telescopes, this is by far the best. It's lightweight. It's easy to mount. It doesn't hurt my neck. The field of view is just the right width. The optical quality is good enough to get the job done. And most importantly, I can always align it within moments. The adjustment screws are a snap to use, and so well placed. I'll admit: I don't love the dew caps - they can be a little dicey to remove - but everything else is just about perfect.
Any Berlebach tripod
If you need a tripod for your telescope, these are the ones to get. They're made of beautiful wood that simply does not get scuffs or scratches, so it always looks new. The build quality is incredible. They're a little heavier than some metal equivalents - especially if the metal is carbon fiber - but they absorb vibrations very well, and are therefore more stable than other tripods. What's not to like?
TeleVue Delos eyepieces
I've used just about every kind of TeleVue eyepiece over the years, from relatively inexpensive Plossls (see below) to the flagship Ethos brand. To my mind, the Delos eyepieces are the best of the lot. The eye relief is great, the contrast impeccable, and the field of view is wide and flat. The difference in contrast between the also-excellent Nagler eyepieces and the Delos line is subtle but definitely noticeable on, for example, Jupiter and Mars. The only downside is that the Delos eyepieces are heavy, and therefore not exactly transportable.
TeleVue Nagler 3-6mm zoom eyepiece
This is my favorite Nagler eyepiece. The contrast is nearly as good as I get with the Delos eyepieces, yet it's much lighter and it toggles effortlessly between magnifications. I make sure to always have it around when the seeing promises to be good, and I can crank up the magnification on the refractors.
TeleVue Plössl eyepieces
They're not super pricey, but oh so much better than anything you can buy from a lesser manufacturer. Their contrast rivals that of the Delos eyepieces, but the field of view is narrower, and there's definite field curvature at edge of view. If your target is relatively small and you can keep it centered, these eyepieces offer incredible value.
TeleVue Everbrite diagonals
I really love these things, in both the 1.25" and 2" models. They're made from a solid hunk of metal, and they always seem to give me cool, bright views. Their clamping screws are oversized and a breeze to use in any weather.
Baader 2” BBHS Sitall Mirror Diagonal
As good as the Everbrite diagonals may be, the premium competition from Baader is generally regarded as just a touch better. I have to confess that I've never noticed a clear difference optically, and that I prefer the mechanical quality of the TeleVue diagonals. Yet the clicklock feature of the Baader variants is just such an improvement over anything else out there. The last thing you want to do in the darkness is mess with screws; Baader removes that necessity. For a sky-high price, of course.
This is a huge hunk of metal: like a miniature Borg cube, and no less threatening when you face the prospect of hauling it to a park in a backpack. I like my mounts to weigh substantially less than my telescopes - ideally less than half as much - whereas the weight of the DM-6 approaches that of my largest telescope. And yet: it's a beautifully crafted manual mount. You can just feel the attention to detail that has gone into its design and construction. Tracking the planets at around 200x is so easy and smooth with this mount, and it's a snap to adjust its tension to make it smoother still. So it's painful to transport, but a joy when set up.
It's much smaller than the DM-6, but made with equal care and precision. Once again, the mount-weight to telescope-weight ratio isn't ideal. This mount barely handles my Takahashi FC-100DZ. Yet it slips easily into a backpack or suitcase. Easier to transport, and a bit less joyful to use.
ORCA OR-732 Hexagon Soft Tripod/Light Stand Bag
Since I have to walk a ways to get to my observing spots, I really care about lightweight carrying cases. For my mid-sized tripods, this is the best I've found. It's very well made, comfortable to carry, heavily padded, and (somehow) quite light. Oh, and it's durable, which can't be said about every carrying case.
Pacific Design Soft Case
These carrying cases are incredible for catadioptric telescopes, especially a C8. They fit snugly, are extremely lightweight, and are just perfect to carry. They make an already portable telescope that much easier to transport . . . though I confess that they don't seem to have a whole lot of padding.
AYO II and VAMO Traveler mounts
This is a tough one. Both mounts are beautifully made and, unlike their DiscMounts competition, remarkably lightweight compared to the telescopes they can carry. At just three pounds, the Traveler held my C8 with no problems, though the FC-100DC was a little shaky on a breezy night. At around six pounds, the AYO II carried my APM 140 - not easily, but well enough to allow high-power planetary observation. On paper, that should make these mounts hard to beat.
Yet the Traveler arrived with a malfunction - I could never adjust a knob to control the tension of its horizontal axis - and, after just a year, the AYO II developed unacceptable slippage in its vertical movements. At that point, it was essentially useless to me. Add to that the paint chips that started chipping off the mount, and my initially extremely favorable impressions quickly soured.
These mounts are really expensive, and deploy really simple technology. They should last longer than a year.
Explore Scientific Twilight mounts
I bought this mount and tripod combination twice. Both times, I really enjoyed its relatively light weight, and its slow-motion knobs. Both times, magnets holding an Allen key to the mount - which you can use to adjust the angle head - simply fell off. The slow-motion knobs did, too. One mount I bought didn't allow me to adjust the angle head at all; the other did. Explore Scientific, in my experience, has quality control problems.
Explore Scientific 82° eyepieces
These were my bridge from the realm of cheap eyepieces to the hallowed ground of TeleVue. Yes, they were clearly superior to the Celestron Plössl eyepieces that ship with telescopes. Yet I didn't find the view as crisp and clear as those I get with my Delos eyepieces, for example. They're also less than half the cost of those eyepieces, so you do get what you pay for.
Neewer 44 inches Rolling Camera Case
This gigantic rolling case is almost great. It used to hold my APM 140, AYO II mount, eyepieces, finder, and stool. Now it holds my Berlebach Uni tripod instead of my TEC 140, which I carry. It's almost great because its handle is way too short, which means it's awkward and heavy to transport for more than a few minutes, and it doesn't seem to have any shock absorption, despite Neewer's promise of an "anti-shock padded compartment." I would gladly buy this case again - I couldn't imagine hauling a big refractor to a park without it - I just wish it was a little more optimized for my needs.
Universal Astronomics MacroStar Deluxe
I've owned two Universal Astronomics mounts, and this was the best by far. It was surprisingly lightweight for a mount that can hold a 10" Schmidt–Cassegrain, and it seemed really solidly made. Yet it had a little too much resistance - movements were not perfectly smooth, even with my 8" Edge HD - and there was something a little rough about its build quality. The optional eyepiece tray that I got with it also had razor-sharp edges that threatened to decapitate me in the darkness, which is usually not ideal.
Skywatcher AZ GTI
It's lightweight! Yet it requires eight (!) AA batteries - no rechargeable lithium here - and it's noisy as it slews to its targets. Instructions are totally inadequate, and the software seems years out of date. Plastic parts galore reflect mediocre build quality. Lots of people like this mount; spoiled by premium manual mounts, I did not.
Celestron Eyepiece and Filter Kit
I imagine a lot of people buy this kit when first getting started, and I was no exception. I wanted more magnification from my telescope - surprise, surprise - and I convinced myself that filters would help me see planetary detail. Trouble is: most of these simple Plössl eyepieces have such small focal lengths and terrible eye relief that they're almost impossible to look through. Otherwise the quality of the eyepieces is mediocre at best, and the quality of the filters is even worse. As soon as you realize that quality eyepieces exist, you want nothing to do with these. And then you're out about $150, because this thing is not easy to sell for much on the used market. Seasoned observers know exactly what it is: a trap for the inexperienced.
Takahashi 6x30 finderscope and bracket
This is blasphemy, I know. The Takahashi 6x30 finders are generally regarded as among the best - perhaps the best - on the market. And yes, the optical quality is superb. But it's so easy to scratch the paint job using the bracket, which is a pain to adjust and must be unscrewed to remove from the optical tube assembly. Straight-through finders also hurt my neck. But more importantly: do you really need to pay a premium for a finder that has optical quality to match your fine refractor? In my experience, the answer is no.
Takahashi Extender-Q 1.6X
As I chronicle in these pages, I once had an FC-100DC. By reading entirely too many forum posts and reviews - on CloudyNights, for example - and by observing during a stretch of mediocre seeing, I came to the conclusion that I could meaningfully improve its planetary performance by buying this little gadget . . . for a cool $600. When it arrived, I found a way to screw it in despite typically terrible Takahashi instructions. For a while I convinced myself that it really did improve my views of Jupiter or Mars, except it lengthened my telescope, altered its center of gravity, and generally made it excessively wobbly on a light mount and tripod. I struggled with that as best I could, until one day it dawned on me - partly by reading this journal - that I really couldn't see noticeably more than I could without the extender. So I sold it. The biggest issue in the end was that the telescope already worked perfectly well without the extender. Sometimes the urge to see just a little bit more is a fool's errand.
Universal Astronomics Medium Tripod
More blasphemy! Universal Astronomics used to make some of the best manual mounts around. But this tripod was all creaky, heavy aluminum that quickly developed signs of wear and tear. It wasn't all bad - it was stable and the built-in carrying strap was great - but give me wooden tripods, please.
Vixen Optics Star Guy Telescope Case SGC10
This is an exceptionally well-made carrying case for a catadioptric telescope. It is also comically heavy. If all you want to do is move your telescope a few steps from the garage to the backyard, fine. If you want to actually carry a Mewlon 180, for example, for more than a few steps . . . well, you might as well transport a C11. It's that heavy.
More concluding thoughts. In this hobby, I've consistently lost money by buying something that was good but not great; deciding I really did need or want something great; and then selling that good item at a loss to finance the great item I should have bought in the first place. Perhaps that's just my personality, though this hobby can lend itself to perpetual discontentedness with the equipment you already have. There always seems to be something a little better around the corner.
To that end, I've also lost money by buying what I thought I might be able to use someday, rather than what I knew I could use right now. That has always, always been a mistake, and I'm trying hard to avoid making it again. Maybe this time I've finally learned my lesson.
It was another beautifully clear, autumnal night on the evening of the 26th, so out I stepped with my FC-100DZ, bound for a nearby field. This time I carried a new, lightweight tracking mount: the Skywatcher AZ-GTi. Several observers have enjoyed using the mount with their Takahashi refractors, and for me the prospect of a small, straightforward tracking mount was hard to turn down. If I can the planets in my sights for longer, I figured, I could have a chance of more seriously observing them - and more easily showing them to my students, friends, and family.
I have to say, years of using fine refractors and simply but well-crafted mounts and tripods have given me expensive taste. When the Skywatcher arrived, I was a little put off by the cheap build quality: the plastic, the AA batteries, the (in some places) poorly thought out design. The instructions were completely inadequate, and the software seemed really dated. In the field, I could not get the thing aligned right away - better instructions would have solved that - and I was put off by a motor that had to have been two or three times loader than the one inside my EVScope. In the end, I managed to align things well enough that the planets stayed in my sights for meaningfully longer than I would with a manual mount.
Seeing was mediocre at best - I could just make out the Great Red Spot, but I couldn't see much of the Cassini Division - so I didn't last long. I'm still not sure whether to keep the mount, but on the grueling walk back I did get to thinking about the equipment I've especially enjoyed in this hobby, and why I enjoyed it.
I often find that reviews I see online miss a lot; they focus on trivial optical differences between telescopes, for example, without adequately considering far more substantial mechanical distinctions. I've ranked equipment before in these pages, but on my walk I thought it might be fun to try it again. Below, I rank all 20 (!) telescopes I've used in tiers, according to my own experiences and preferences. That means I'm not comparing them to each other in a vacuum; rather, I'm evaluating how they worked for me.
In a subsequent post, I may reflect on some accessories that have stood out to me, good or bad, and some brands I particularly enjoy or dislike. Anyway, here goes.
1. Telescope Engineering Company (TEC) 140
This is a perfect telescope. For a triplet (meaning it has three lenses) it's extremely lightweight, and because it's oil-spaced it acclimates very quickly. Its mechanical quality has no peer; the from tube rings to focuser to sliding dew shield, everything looks beautiful and works perfectly. And the optical quality is about as good as it gets. On a good night, the view is truly stunning; you feel as though you're actually in a spaceship, approaching the objects you observe. The one drawback? This thing will cost you about three times more than an APM 140, which can give you at least 90% of the performance.
Excellent, with some caveats
2. Takahashi FC-100DZ
Not much to complain about here, either. The TEC 140 provides views that are virtually free of chromatic aberration (false color) by using a third lens; the DZ achieves a similar feat despite being a doublet because its two lenses are made of crystal (fluorite) and exotic, low-dispersion glass. Since it's a doublet, it cools down in no time and weighs very little.
Like all Takahashi telescopes, it has a very distinct, airy and beautiful style in teal and "Corvette white." The mechanical quality is exceptionally high, and in fact I debated whether to place it in the same category as the TEC. Yet for the FC-100DZ, excellence comes with minor caveats. The telescope's sliding dew shield can wobble ever so slightly when it's fully extended and you're trying to pull off the dust cap. There's a screw on the dew shield - which the TEC lacks - that when fully screwed in (to lock the shield in place) eventually leaves a small mark on the paint of the optical tube. The focuser works well but is a bit too sticky for fine adjustment at high power in particular; in my view you really do need to buy a two-speed focuser upgrade (I prefer Takahashi's MEF-3). Even then the focuser doesn't have that buttery-smooth feel of the Feathertouch focuser that comes standard on the TEC, for example. Takahashi's vixen-style dovetail is far too long and heavy for such a small telescope; substitutes by ADM Accessories work better. Everyone praises Takahashi's finderscopes - their optical quality is truly special - but straight-through finders like those made by Takahashi are hard on the neck, and I really don't like Takahashi's mounting bracket.
Getting everything to just work effortlessly with Takahashi telescopes always takes some adjustment, and often extra expense. In my experience, it can be a weeks-long process. Still, once you've figured everything out, on a good night, it's hard to believe that such a little telescope can show so much. It's a stunning instrument.
3. APM 140
I had my APM for just under a year. To me, that's hard to imagine for two reasons: first, that year began roughly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and oh what a long twelve months it was; second, I had so many memorable experiences with the APM that it felt like I'd owned it for a decade. These pages chronicle some of the wondrous things I saw: six stars in Orion's Trapezium; intricate, linear features stretching around Mars; Jupiter's belts and zones in glorious detail; the nucleus and tail of comet NEOWISE plunging towards the horizon; and rilles - countless rilles - winding across the Moon. Of all the telescopes I've owned, only the TEC 140 has given me better views than the APM.
The APM is a doublet, however, which means it's noticeably lighter and a bit more compact than the TEC. Its build quality is not quite at the level of the TEC, but still really impressive. The two-speed focuser is great, and so are the sliding dew shield and tube rings. The cost is also very reasonable for such an excellent mid-sized refractor (which means it's high, but not obscene). The only drawback is that its relatively fast focal ratio gives it just a hint more false color than the TEC or FC-100DZ, which makes it just ever so slightly worse for planetary viewing. Still, I can't recommend this telescope enough.
4. Takahashi FC-100DC
The FC-100DC is a lot like the DZ - a truly spectacular little telescope - except it shows just a bit more false color, has a slightly faster focal ratio, and only accommodates 1.25" diagonals and eyepieces. As far as I can tell, the optical difference is only noticeable on nights of good to excellent seeing. If you love observing subtle detail on Mars or hate even a hint of false color around the lunar limb, perhaps that matters a little. What's much more noticeable, however, is the DC's lighter weight, which means that it can be mounted on a much flimsier mount. Having sold the DC for the DZ, I miss that portability.
More importantly still: the DC's visual back relies on a series of screwed-in "couplings." In order to achieve focus, you have to screw or unscrew a number of these little tubes. It is, in my experience, very easy to screw these tubes in far too tight, especially if you're attaching and detaching your diagonal or eyepieces. When that happens, it becomes almost impossible to change the configuration of the telescope or even exchange diagonals without damaging the couplings. The DZ has a different, more conventional system, and it makes a very big difference. For that reason, I would always buy a DZ over the DC, in spite of the increased cost and the slight but meaningful weight difference.
5. TeleVue 85
I've sung the praises of this telescope in entry after entry in this journal. It truly is a little powerhouse. Only the TEC has better build quality - though it really is very close between them, I prefer the TEC's sleek paint job and more robust focuser - and the sharpness of the view through the TV 85 is truly remarkable. In fact, this telescope is why I switched over to refractors. I'd never clearly seen the Great Red Spot before using my Edge HD 800; when I did after using the TV 85 for the first time, I knew there was no going back.
However, the TV 85 has some real drawbacks. For one, it's heavy for its size - probably as heavy as the FC-100DZ - and its fast focal ratio makes it perhaps less well suited for planetary observation than the other fine refractors listed here. It doesn't have a lot of false color - not at all - but it's noticeably more than the FC-100DZ, for example, and that means that Mars in particular is not an ideal target for the TV 85 (though the telescope is peerless for open clusters). Lastly, the price is a little ridiculous. I can't fathom why this telescope costs nearly as much as a Vixen ED115S, for example, which is a much more capable instrument, or three times more than the very comparable Zenithstar 81.
6. William Optics Zenithstar 81
I'm not sure where to place this telescope. It's incredibly lightweight and compact, which is what you want in a small refractor. Its build quality seems exceptionally high - it's beautiful to look at, and I think the William Optics tube rings and dovetail combination might be the best there is - while the optics are sharp and virtually color-free. To be honest, I really don't understand how this telescope costs so much less than either the TV 85, which provides only marginally superior views, or the FS-60Q, which is a more specialized and in some respects less capable telescope. And the Zenithstar comes with a heap of genuinely well-made, useful accessories. Is there something I'm missing? I'd be tempted to place the Zenithstar in fifth place, but I think the TV 85 is probably a bit better at high magnifications.
7. Unistellar EVScope
Again, I'm not sure where to place this digital telescope, which is of course in a different class than every other instrument on this list. I can set it up and align its go-to software within seconds. Thereafter it slews effortlessly from one deep space object after another that I could never even glimpse - let alone observe - with even the TEC 140. Imagine being able to admire white dwarfs, and nebulae in other galaxies, from the light-polluted heart of a major city, using a telescope that you can slip easily into a large backpack. I never would have thought that was possible.
So why isn't it higher in these rankings? For one, seeing the cosmos through a screen - even if that screen is at the bottom of an eyepiece - is just not the same as seeing it through fine glass. There is a level of separation you feel when looking at a screen that you just don't get while peering through the transparent glass of a fine refractor, which can feel like an extension of the eye. Second, the resolution of the sensor, the relatively constrained field of view, and the inadequacy of the eyepiece - which gives you the sense that you're looking down a well at a distant television - all detract from the experience. I probably reach for this telescope more than any other - it's just so convenient, and there's so much to see in deep space - but I can't place it any higher on this list. Maybe I'll feel differently about its successor, which debuts in just two months.
Technically, the TV 85 gathers almost twice as much light as this little telescope. Yet line up both instruments to observe the Moon at low or medium power, and the first thing that stands out is the perfectly color-free views in the FS-60Q. In these pages I compared pictures of the Moon that I took with the FS-60Q to those I took using the APM 140, and I could almost not tell the difference. The view of Mars at opposition was similarly baffling. You'd think that the 60Q would be in a different class than the much bigger telescopes, but for low- or medium-power lunar and planetary observing that was not always the case. To top it off, the Takahashi build quality is (predictably) excellent, and you can actually unscrew the optical tube so the separate halves fit in a mid-sized backpack. Imagine that!
And yet . . . with tube rings (or clamshell) and the smallest, non-Takahashi dovetail you can buy, the fully assembled FS-60Q is scarcely lighter or smaller than the TV-85. Just look:
This means that, relative to the TV-85 or Zenithstar, the 60Q technically gathers far less light in exchange for a slight reduction in false color. At high powers, or for observing deep space objects, that inferior light gathering starts to become really significant, easily overwhelming the advantage of perfectly color-free views. And yes, it's really cool that you can split the telescope into two halves. In fact, one of those halves is a perfectly functional telescope - albeit with much more false color than the fully assembled unit - so when you buy the 60Q, you're really getting two telescopes in one. Screwing both halves together in the dark can be loud, frustrating, and at times harrowing, however, so in practice I actually preferred setting out with the 60Q fully assembled.
Before long I didn't even do that; the small telescopes ranked above it were simply better. The Zenithstar in particular gathers much more light, is much more portable, and is much easier to use (partly because it's compatible with most accessories in our hobby, while Takahashi telescopes aren't).
9. Vixen ED115S
I truly loved this telescope. It didn't gather much more light than the four-inch (100mm) refractors on this list, and it was noticeably longer and bulkier. Yet out in the field, it really was a joy to use with my AYO II mount. It was perfectly stable, wonderfully balanced, and the optics really gave up very little if anything to those of the FC-100DC, for example. Perhaps the view of the Moon or Jupiter was a bit warmer than what I got with the other refractors in this category, but it was hard to say.
So why is the Vixen ranked so low? I got mine with an upgraded, MoonLite focuser, and a beautiful William Optics tube ring and dovetail combination. The observer I sold it to was delighted, I assure you. Yet the Vixen normally sells with mediocre (at best) tube rings and focuser that do not at all befit a telescope of this quality and price. For that reason, I would avoid buying one new.
10. Takahashi Mewlon 180
I didn't own this telescope for very long, and I can completely understand why others might rank it higher. It's beautifully made; I compared it to a streamlined jet engine in these pages and it really does look like one. Very few telescope manufacturers design instruments with the style and grace of Takahashi telescopes. The only problem is that the Mewlon takes a long time to acclimate - longer than I had - and it seemed like it would be a chore to collimate. To me that made it less enjoyable to use than a fine refractor, but others in different circumstances might feel differently.
A clear step down, but still good
11. Celestron C8
The plain old orange-tube C8 I bought new several years ago fit comfortably on my lightest mount and tripod: a combination that had difficulty accommodating my FC-100DC. That says it all, doesn't it? You will not find a more portable, do-everything telescope than a C8. When properly collimated and acclimated, it can provide truly impressive views of - in my experience - the planets in particular. Acclimation takes a while, however, dew is a persistent problem, there's field curvature at the edge of the view, and the build quality is thoroughly mediocre. Add to that the variation in between samples - some C8's are great, others less so - and this is a clear step down from the telescopes above. But what value for the price!
12. Skywatcher 100ED
My view of this telescope has soured slightly from when I last ranked instruments on this site. On a night of mediocre seeing you could position this telescope next to a Takahashi of similar aperture and, at low or medium magnifications, not notice a difference on most objects. Considering that the telescope sold at less than $650 during regular sales when I last did this ranking, that prompted me to view it as maybe the best bargain in the hobby.
Now it's much more expensive, however, and I'd no longer call it much of a steal (except on the used market). Because it doesn't use exotic glass, its focal ratio is slow to reduce false color, and that makes it heavier and much more unwieldy for its aperture than the other telescopes on this list. You will need a mid-sized mount. Yet it still does not focus all wavelengths of light perfectly at focus to produce crisp views of, for example, Mars or Jupiter. It's telling that I could never clearly make out the Great Red Spot using this telescope, but I instantly could with the TV 85 (which shows a bit more false color than some other refractors on this list). The build quality of the telescope is mediocre, though meaningfully better than that of many telescopes lower on this list.
So again, a step down. And yet: I had a beautifully clear view of the Orion Nebula with this telescope one winter night that almost drove me to tears. I'll never forget it.
13. Celestron C6
It's everything I said about the C8, except it doesn't pack as much punch. It's not much easier to mount or transport than the C8, and it has all the drawbacks of the bigger telescope. So why not opt for the extra aperture? In most - though not all - cases, that would be the right move.
14. Celestron C90
I wasn't sure where to place the C90. Put it this way: I've had better views of Jupiter using my C90 than I've had using any but the top nine optical telescopes on this list. Yet the C90 fits into a small backpack and costs less than a half-decent eyepiece. There's a case to be made for placing it at the top of this category, but it's a Maksutov Cassegrain and therefore it takes longer to acclimate than you might think. Build quality is so-so, but far higher than you'd expect at this price. The field of view is a bit narrow, given the aperture, but a C90 is hard to beat for a first telescope, or as a travel scope.
Good for the money
15. Skywatcher 127mm Mak
Maksutov telescopes are like Malthusian traps: the downsides of using them increase geometrically as their aperture increases arithmetically. That means that while a C90 is a fun little thing that affords a full view of the Orion Nebula and cools down in a half-hour or so on a brisk autumn night, the larger 127mm from Skywatcher takes annoyingly long to acclimate and provides a much more constrained field of view. On one winter's night, my 127mm was still cooling after an hour. On the other hand, the telescope doesn't need collimating and it's very easy to transport, so it makes for a capable, easy-to-use travel telescope. Mechanical and optical quality are typical Skywatcher: good enough, but not great.
16. 4" Celestron Omni XLT refractor
I don't think they make this little thing anymore, which is a damned shame because it performed exceptionally well for the price. It looked like a toy and the build quality was laughably bad, especially for the supplied diagonal. Yet the optics were impressive (again, for the price): at least on par with those of the AR 102, for example (below). For a couple hundred bucks, you used to get a portable wooden tripod, simple mount, and telescope that could show you cloud belts on Jupiter and a hint of the Cassini Division in Saturn's ranks. I guess that wasn't profitable for Celestron?
Disappointing, to me
17. Celestron Starhopper
I've already reviewed these next four telescopes, so I'll only offer a few extra thoughts. The Starhopper is an older dobsonian - the first real telescope I used, in fact - and it's badly outclassed by today's competition. I remember that the mount in particular was flimsy plywood, the optical tube was little more than thick cardboard, and the focuser was cheap plastic that cracked when I knocked it into the wall. Yet optical quality was good enough, and that's about what you could hope for 20+ years ago.
18. Celestron Edge HD 800
My experience with the C8 leads me to believe I acquired a very bad sample of an Edge HD. Some people swear by the design. At first - in mediocre seeing - I rather liked it! But I reluctantly began to change my mind when atmospheric conditions improved and the views I was getting didn't. Eventually, comparing it to a fine refractor - the TV 85 - led me to leave catadioptric telescopes behind for good. I'll never forget the disappointment in the voices of neighbors who viewed the Moon through this telescope after it was fully acclimated and collimated.
19. Explore Scientific AR 102
In a subsequent post, I may reflect a little on the equipment I've acquired from Explore Scientific. The price always seems unbeatable, until things start falling apart. That's always a risk with non-premium astronomical equipment, but it's greater with some brands than others. Let me tell you: it's not fun when you're doing outreach and a young person eager to see the Moon up close for the first time has to actually cradle your telescope's focuser in place - in its optical tube - because it can't handle a mid-sized eyepiece.
20. Skywatcher Flextube 12" Dobsonian
This was too much telescope for me, and the variant I bought - used, about 12 years ago now - was of low mechanical quality and took far too long to acclimate. The only thing I remember seeing clearly with it was a boiling blob that I knew (intellectually, but not by looking at it) was Mars.
A few parting reflections. First, in my now-extensive experience, the most meaningful improvements in telescope performance all take place under the $1000 threshold. There can be a massive jump in the performance of a $900 telescope, for example, versus a $500 instrument. Yet the difference between a $900 telescope and something that's double or triple the cost can be quite subtle.
In my view, the telescopes on this list that provide the best value for the money are the APM 140, the William Optics Zenithstar 81, the Celestron C8, and the Celestron C90. Were I were buying a first telescope out of that group, I would without hesitation choose the Zenithstar . . . if I had the money for it.
I've sold and exchanged most of these telescopes over the years to acquire instruments that are ideally suited for my work and pleasure. I have a small group left over. If I had to keep just one, I wouldn't have to think long about it: it would be the Takahashi FC-100DZ. But I have to walk to my observing locations. If I had a backyard, I would immediately select the TEC 140. If all I could take was the APM 140, however . . . I could cope with that just fine.
We've had some wonderfully clear, autumnal nights over the past week, with Jupiter and Saturn riding high in the evening sky and the Moon waxing and waning nearby. I'm teaching what may be my favorite course at the moment - about the human history of nearby celestial bodies (what I call "neighboring worlds"), and a special highlight is taking my students out for a night with a telescope.
I have now accumulated some very fine refractors, however, and I worried about how they'd fare after being handled by twenty students. To that end, I drew on my research funds to buy a William Optics Zenithstar 81. It's a beautiful little refractor, and I figured that it would be more than adequate to give my students an impressive view of the Moon. For their first assignment, they need to find a feature on the Moon and then write a history of how people have understood, imagined, explored, or planned to exploit that feature.
A few things immediately struck me about the Zenithstar. First, it costs about a third as much as the TeleVue 85 I used to own - less than a third, when you consider it comes with its own mounting rings, dovetail, Bahtinov mask, and carrying case - despite giving up only four millimeters in aperture. Second, its build quality looks to be on par with the very best telescopes I own and have owned, with the possible exception of my TEC 140. Third, it seems to weigh less than the FS-60Q I once owned, and much less than the TV 85, and its sliding dew shield makes it much more compact than either telescope.
It was really easy to carry the telescope to a darker corner of campus, and there set it up on my DM-4 mount and Berlebach Report tripod. Almost immediately, the Plossl eyepieces I'd decided to use provided beautifully crisp views of the nearly fully illuminated Moon. The students who had started to gather were predictably impressed. When we found we had a few minutes to spare at the end of the evening, I decided to try showing them Jupiter and Saturn. At about 56x, the planets were small, but beautifully sharp and clear. Many of my students were awestruck; they had a hard time believing that they could really see the major cloud belts of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn from downtown DC.
Experiential learning is always special; it makes the otherwise abstract concepts we discuss in class come alive for my students, and it can provide lifelong memories. I for one was stunned by the performance of the little refractor. It is, by far, the most portable telescope I've owned, and when it comes to performance it really doesn't give up much to the TV 85. I loved my TV 85, but I would have a hard time recommending that telescope as a go-to instrument when the Zenithstar seems to provide so much more value for the cost.
Last night conditions were even better, and now I resolved to head out with my biggest telescope: the TEC 140. The weight of the telescope, tripod, and mount means that I really can't haul everything to my favorite field. I targeted the little alcove next to a church that I've used over the past year, yet when I arrived as I was dismayed to find that the church had installed a new streetlight that completely ruled out observing there. I wandered about, dragging my heavy gear, until I decided to head down to a little amphitheater near the National Cathedral. There I found a perch that, if I moved around a bit, afforded me a view of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon through the canopies of nearby trees.
When I swung the TEC to Saturn, I was mesmerized. This was only the second time I'd used the TEC, and the first time in good seeing. In those conditions, Saturn looked absolutely stunning, like a beautiful jewel set in a velvet background. Its many moons were brilliant and sharp, and the shadow of the planet on its rings gave me the rare sense that I was actually seeing a world in three dimensions (often, objects in the eyepiece look flat, and therefore two dimensional). Cloud details were obvious on the planet's yellow-white disk.
Switching over to Jupiter provided an even more spectacular revelation. The TEC provided what may have been my best-ever view of the planet, with more cloud belts and zones than I could count, delicate, feathery structures within those belts and zones, and a perfectly obvious, brown "barge" - an elongated, oval cloud feature - near the planet's equator. There was a contrast and vibrance to the planet's colors that you just don't get with a smaller refractor, and all four Galilean moons were visible as clear disks, rather than points of light.
Jupiter and Saturn soon wheeled behind the trees, so it was time for the waning gibbous Moon. Once again, I was dumbstruck. The Moon wasn't that far above the horizon, but at 163x there was just such a wealth of subtle, perfectly sharp detail, from jumbled crater peaks to winding rilles and delicate scarps. The terminator was perfectly positioned to throw mountain after mountain in sharp relief, and in exploring them I eventually lost track of time. Then a giant cricket jumped on my pants, I realized in shaking it off that it was past midnight, and I began packing up for the painful trek home.
The TEC 140, I have to say, is noticeably better than the APM 140 I've also raved about in these pages. I'm not sure it's worth the extra cost; certainly I could never have afforded the difference if I didn't use the telescope for my research and writing (which means I could draw from my research funds to buy it). I realize how lucky I am, and I hope I can keep using the telescope for a lifetime.
It won't be that often, however, until I manage to own a backyard; as wonderful as the telescope may be, it's also hard to transport more than a few minutes from our home.
We've had some clear skies over the past week, and of course for me that involved hauling my telescopes outside. With Jupiter and Saturn high above the horizon early in the evening, now is a great time for planetary observation. I set up my Takahashi FC-100DZ on our rooftop one night, but although it was convenient - and the National Mall looked spectacular in the distance - plumes of heat rising from our building marred the view. Jupiter was a boiling mess, and Saturn looked only slightly better.
Smoke from the west coast wildfires moved in early this week, so the transparency of the sky plummeted. Yet seeing was above-average, and - knowing that a little haze in the sky can sometimes improve planetary views - I stepped out anyway, Takahashi in hand. I mount the telescope on a DiscMounts DM-4, and although the mount should easily be able to hold the Takahashi with minimal vibration, so far its stability doesn't compare to that of the AYO II I recently sold - even on my heaviest tripod. Perhaps I need to play around with the tension? I suppose I'll keep experimenting.
I wasn't prepared for the thickness of the wildfire smoke at high altitude - yes, that's more than a little depressing - and so Jupiter and especially Saturn were dimmer than I'd anticipated. Yet seeing was, at times, phenomenal. All of Jupiter's moons were visible, and all looked like clear disks of varying color and size. Orange Io and giant Ganymede were especially easy to pick out at 177x, and for once I wished I had more magnification (unfortunately, I'd left my Nagler zoom eyepiece at home).
On nights of bad seeing, one two dark belts can be visible on Jupiter. Now, I saw some spectacular detail. Not only were the two northern and two southern temperate belts plainly visible, but I could make out delicate, at times feathery texture all along each belt. I lingered a while on that view. Saturn, unfortunately, was less impressive: the smoke was just too thick to permit more than a dim view.
On a night with higher transparency, I walked out with my EVScope. I confirmed what I'd long suspected: in a light-polluted urban sky, brightening at the edges of the view precludes long exposures. While you can still get impressive urban (!) views of many nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies, the telescope performs much better when the light pollution isn't as bad.
The comparison above shows what the EVScope can do under a suburban sky (top) and in ideal conditions under an urban sky (bottom), with similar exposure times. It should be stressed that conditions for the bottom image were truly ideal: the nebula was near zenith, there was no Moon, and transparency was excellent. Still, it's clear that the telescope goes a bit deeper when the light pollution is lower. Of course, I also could have had a much longer exposure under that suburban sky, had I wanted to do that.
All in all, two good nights of very different observing - and one pleasant view from our rooftop.
Another clear night on the Atlantic Coast, again with good seeing (but mediocre transparency). Once again I quickly set up my EVScope, and this time I had eyes on the galaxies in the Big Dipper, towards the north, and the Nebulae around the galactic core in the south.
The galaxies turned out to be a little disappointing, partly because the EVScope's "enhanced vision" - its image-stacking mode - kept cutting out after just a few minutes. I've had a spotty and unpredictable wifi signal here, which might be to blame. Light pollution is also worse towards the north, and the Big Dipper was low on the horizon.
The nebulae to the south, however, were nothing short of spectacular. Below (clockwise from top left) are the Lagoon, Omega, Trifid, and Eagle nebulae, in five- to 10-minute exposures. What really strikes me is the amount of subtle detail in each of these short exposures, especially the dark lanes weaving through each nebula. I took all of these shots, collectively, in about 30 minutes - and then packed up my telescope in around 10 seconds.
So, another successful night here in Lewes, Delaware. Now it's back to our light-polluted skies in DC, where my next targets will probably be Jupiter and Saturn.
It's been boiling hot and cloudy at night through much of July and August in DC, but this week we escaped to the Atlantic coast. I asked my five-year-old daughter which telescope I should bring, and though Jupiter amd Saturn are high and bright right now she was adamant: the one that would give the best views of nebulae and galaxies. Though I was tempted to bring my TEC 140, the EVScope was the clear choice.
I set up the little telescope beneath skies in Lewes, Delaware, that were just about dark enough to reveal the Milky Way. Seeing was really good and transparency was about mediocre. While lying on a hammock in the sun room, I controlled the EVScope and slewed it from one target to another, checking its progress on my phone. You just can't beat that convenience.
When there's a lot of light pollution - as in DC - I quickly notice a brightening at the edges of the screen when taking EVScope exposures that are more than a few minutes long. No such trouble here in Lewes, where the light pollution is not comparable to what it's like in DC. I realized things were different right away, with this exposure of the Whirlpool Galaxy. I've written this before, but wow what a thrill to set up a suitcase-sized telescope and, within minutes, observe nebulae in a galaxy 30 million light years away!
The more I use the EVScope, the more I find myself thinking that telescopes like it represent a huge part of the future of amateur astronomy. Light pollution is unlikely to get much better any time soon, and attempts to reduce future warming by increasing the opacity of the atmosphere are becoming increasingly plausible (this is known as solar geoengineering). Electronically assisted astronomy (EAA) will help observers overcome these obstacles - while giving them views of the distant universe that simply can't be matched with traditional optics (at least not in a portable package). The technology will only get better, and I can imagine telescopes that can switch seamlessly between modes ideal for Solar System and deep space object observation.
While the EVScope can deliver impressive views within the biggest cities, it dawned on me last night that it really comes into its own under darker skies. Perhaps it's no surprise that even EAA follows the same principle as traditional astronomy: the darker the sky, the better the view. The EVScope only reduces - enormously - the usually extreme difference between dark-sky and polluted-sky observing.
For example, I've been trying to get a good shot of the Dumbbell Nebula for the longest time in Washington, DC, but whenever I tried I ended up with little more than a disappointing blob. But just look at the view after just 10 minutes in Lewes. To me, the level of detail and color is nothing short of phenomenal. And what a thought: the Dumbbell Nebula is illuminated gas released by a red giant star before its collapse into a white dwarf (in this case, the largest white dwarf known to astronomers). This is what our Solar System could look like in six billion years or so.
So yes: when it comes to the EVScope, it's hard to beat the views. And it fits in a tiny corner of my car's trunk, tripod and all!
I've written about the EVScope and Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA) quite frequently in these pages. I was skeptical at first - partly because my EVScope had a technical problem - and only came around slowly. Only last night did I become an enthusiastic supporter.
I stepped out on a warm, breezy night with the EVScope in its backpack. Transparency and seeing were both around average; there was no Moon. When I reached our nearby park, I set up in all of 30 seconds. I decided that my first target would be the Eagle Nebula, which I've never glimpsed through a regular telescope. The galactic core was lost in light pollution over the National Mall - the sky seemed closer to white than black - so I wasn't optimistic.
And yet! When the EVScope found its target - in just a few moments - and started gathering light, a multitude of stars snapped into view, and then the nebula. After a couple minutes, light pollution started to cloud the view - I haven't tried to tinker with the settings that could help me resolve that issue, not yet - so I stopped the exposure after eight minutes or so. I was left with this:
In the dark, on my phone, it looked spectacular. Look! There are the pillars of creation - star-making factories so memorably imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope - somehow visible from downtown Washington, DC, just nine or so minutes after setting up in an urban park. This image does it for me - I like my nebulae ghostly and ethereal - but with a little image processing, even more detail pops out (see the picture at the beginning of this post).
Now it was on to the Trifid Nebula nearby, it too lost in downtown pollution. Not for long! Again, I'd never seen it with a regular telescope, yet again, it didn't take long to pop into view through the EVScope. This image I like a little less; the unprocessed version doesn't quite bring out the blue. Still, getting this detail so easily in the middle of a city feels nothing short of miraculous.
Then it was off to the Ring Nebula which, of course, never fails to impress - albeit in very different ways through an optical versus an EAA telescope. Whether because of a software update or an unusually transparent sky - I suspect the former - I was, for the first time, able to see the white dwarf at the heart of the nebula. Seeing that would require an enormous regular telescope - too big for my car - and a very dark sky. Imagine my wonder at glimpsing the dead star from the city: our Sun's future, six or seven billion years from now.
I didn't have much time left, but I wanted to see how far I could reach. I turned to NGC 5907, a galaxy marginally larger than our own, around 54 million light years distant. I could only take a short exposure - I really did have to leave - but there: an edge-on spiral galaxy that I would never have been able to observe even with my TEC 140. The light in this picture left its source not only after the dinosaurs went extinct. What a thought!
I packed up just as quickly as I set up, and then a pleasant walk home with my backpack. It is simply remarkable to see so much so easily. I've often seen the EVScope's hardware discussed and praised, yet what really stands out to me is the software. If only other mounts, carrying regular telescopes, were so easy to use.
After a surprisingly cool spring (in the context of global warming), it's finally getting hot here in Washington, DC, and with summer comes better seeing. It promised to be above average on the night of the 18th. As Brood X cicadas burrowed out of the ground all around me, I walked over to my nearby church, refractor in hand. I might have been tempted to take the TEC 140 had that not been such a chore last time I stepped out, and anyway all I really wanted was a nice look at the setting Moon. The Takahashi was an easy choice.
It never ceases to amaze me, the endless varieties of turbulence that the atmosphere has to offer. After turning to the Moon, it was clear to me that if seeing was better than average, it would also preclude really detailed iPhone pictures. There was an undulating quality about the atmosphere. Parts of the moon would roll about, as if under waves lazily passing on their way to shore. While it was easy enough for me to see, with great clarity, what was underneath those waves, I knew that my phone would blur the slowly changing view.
Still, what a view it was! At low magnifications - 46x, with a Delos eyepiece - I couldn't notice the waviness of the atmosphere, and the detail was absolutely staggering. The Moon had a three-dimensional quality, and with almost zero false color I could just about make up the subtle shadings and - I thought - differences in color across the lunar surface. It's hard to describe, but the Moon looked likely a rich and fully realized world through the eyepiece - and I could almost pretend that I was somewhere in its orbit. Clearly visible earthshine on the otherwise unilluminated half of the Moon only added to the effect.
When I increased the magnification - up to 177x, sticking with Delos eyepieces - the view stayed sharp, but those remarkable differences in tint and hue were far less obvious, and turbulence detracted from that spacewalk effect. I took some pictures anyway, and what sticks out to me is that those different colorations are just about visible in them: a testament to the superb color correction of the FC-100DZ.
After about 45 minutes, the rustling around me became impossible to ignore - was it rabbits, or something else? - and I packed up, content with yet another breathtaking expedition to the Moon, courtesy of the Takahashi.
Everybody approaches amateur astronomy in different ways, but for me - and many others - the most difficult thing about the hobby is that you always wonder, no matter how sublime the view: what would I see if I had different equipment? Usually "what would I see" means "what more would I see," and usually "different" means "better" - and that means that many amateur astronomers, at least at some point, embark on a long, frustrating, expensive quest for new telescopes, new mounts, new tripods, new eyepieces . . . the list goes on.
I've been on that path for quite a few years now. Yet when it comes to telescopes - or more specifically, to optical tube assemblies - I reached the end this spring. For a long time, I dreamed of someday - somehow - being able to own a truly world-class, medium-sized refractor. I long had my eye on the Telescope Engineer Company (TEC) 140: an American-made, oil-spaced triplet of uncompromising optical and mechanical quality that, while portable, easily outperformed much larger telescopes. I didn't think I'd be able to afford it for a very long time, but then I realized that although I'd slowly cobbled together a rather large collection of telescopes, I was really only using three of them (my EVScope, Takahashi FC-100, and APM 140). If I sold my telescopes and some other gear for the right price, I might just have the foundation I needed to pursue a used TEC 140.
Precisely as those thoughts entered my mind, a rarely-used TEC 140 ED, in like-new condition, popped up on the used market for a daunting but reasonable price. I took the plunge, and then went on a truly exhausting campaign to sell everything I could spare to recoup what I'd spent. Some of what I sold, I know I will miss for a long time. I ended up parting with my FS-60Q, TV-85, and APM-140, and each loss stings in a slightly different way. I've had unforgettable memories with the TV-85 and APM-140 in particular, but upgrading equipment is not for the sentimental.
In the end I earned precisely as much money as I spent on the TEC 140, so my guilt was mostly assuaged when it arrived. Comparing it to the APM 140 was instructive and ended up highlighting the virtues of both telescopes. The TEC 140 is, first and foremost, slightly but meaningfully heaver and bulkier than the APM 140. Its focuser is more robust, its finish is of clearly higher quality, and its tube ringers are easier to manipulate. With that said, the APM's focuser is just as buttery smooth, and I actually find its sliding few shield a little easier to manipulate. It's not a tossup - the TEC 140 is clearly mechanically superior - but the APM holds up surprisingly well when you consider that it costs less than half as much (during sales, more like a third as much).
Because the TEC 140 is that much bulkier than the APM 140 and uses a Losmandy dovetail that I didn't want to replace, I needed a new, sturdier mount. That's also because my AYO II mount had, after just a year, started to develop an unacceptable amount of slippage on one side. So, I scraped together what I could and purchased a DM-6 mount to match the DM-4 I purchased for my Takahashi. This, to be sure, is a beautiful piece of metal . . . but although mechanically superior to the AYO II (in my view), it's also very substantially heavier. The upshot is that my TEC 140 setup is a good deal less portable than my APM 140 setup had been.
Because it's less portable, I can't take the TEC 140 to the field where I used to set up my APM. That field will be reserved for my FC-100DZ and EVScope from now on. On some level it feels like a minor loss - I had some wonderful times there with my APM - but I'm quite sure the FC-100 can pick up the slack. And I do now have the alcove, near the church by my home, that affords some fine views of the southern sky.
The TEC-140 is also so heavy that I refuse to take it out unless seeing is above average. This morning, for the first time in a while, it was forecast to be. So there I was, huffing and puffing on the sidewalk at 4:00 AM, bound for the alcove and for a date with Jupiter and Saturn. Both planets have passed behind the Sun and are again high enough above the horizon to be worth a look.
It was an exhausting walk, but setup was easy and quick as usual. When I turned to Jupiter, two things struck me. First, seeing was not nearly as good as advertised; that close to the southeastern horizon, it was average at best. Second, the color correction of the telescope was absolutely spot on. The older TEC 140 ED is supposed to be slightly better in longer (red) wavelengths than the newer TEC 140 FL, but slightly worse on shorter (blue) wavelengths, which should make the ED somewhat better for observing Mars and Jupiter, but somewhat worse for astrophotography. In any case, Jupiter's coloration was lovely, even if the planet's fine detail was often obscured by the turbulent atmosphere.
Saturn, fortunately, was higher in the morning sky. Turning to the planet at 98x, with a 10mm Delos eyepiece installed, made for a genuine "wow" moment. Never have I seen more than a few of Saturn's moons, but now Enceladus, Dione, Titan, Tethys, and Rhea were all clearly visible. Subtle gray shading was easy to see on the planet's disk, as was a shadow just behind the rings (I love their orientation right now). The Cassini Division was plainly obvious but now around the entire ring system; unfortunately, seeing was just not good enough to see more. Once again, the color correction was sublime.
After turning to some stars and observing them in and out of focus, it was clear to me that the telescope has - surprise, surprise - exceptional, beautifully corrected optics. Yet it struck me, as it did several months ago with the FC-100DZ, how much more seeing matters than optics when it comes to planetary observation. Did I see more detail this morning on Jupiter and Saturn with the TEC 140 than I would have with the APM 140? Maybe, just a little. But have I seen more detail with the APM 140 when the atmosphere cooperated? Absolutely. I'm looking forward to experiencing what the TEC 140 can do when the atmosphere truly is steady.
I suspect I will miss the portability of the APM 140, and wow that is a good telescope when you consider its cost relative to the TEC 140. Yet for me, it is important to know that the quality of my optics are not keeping me from seeing more planetary or lunar detail. With that in mind, I am very happy with my beautiful TEC. A distant goal, accomplished surprisingly soon!