This is one of nearly 100 articles in the author’s Astronomy Digest. http://www.ianmorison.com
This relatively inexpensive mount, costing ~£350, is an excellent small equatorial mount that could be used with an 80 mm refractor when used with the two supplied 1kg counterweights but, as described below, given additional counter weights, it can support a 6 inch SCT or 127 mm Maksutov. Used as such, it would make a very nice ‘get up and go’ telescope system to take out to dark sky locations. There is no hand controller and the user’s Android or Apple tablet or a Windows 10 laptop is usually used to control the mount over WiFi using the, free to download, ‘Explore Stars’ App.
The mount is provided with 2 (beautifully finished), 2.2 lb, counterweights, capable of balancing, for example, an 80 mm refractor. For visual use the mount can handle a total weight of telescope plus counter weights of ~19 lbs for visual observing or ~15 lbs for photographic use. However, dependant on the type of telescope to be used, additional counterweights might well be needed. When at the furthest end of the counterweight arm, the two supplied weight’s centre of gravity is 11.5 inches from the axis of rotation. This gives them a turning moment of 4.4 x 11.4 = 50 lb inches. A refractor, when mounted, would have its centre of gravity some 7.5 inches from the axis of rotation so, when using the supplied counterweights, it weight could be up to 50 / 7.5 = 6.7 lbs. In contrast, a Celestron C6 Schmidt-Cassegrain with a weight of ~9 lbs including eyepiece and finder scope, has a centre of gravity some 9 inches from the axis of rotation so would have a turning moment of 81 lb inches. It would thus need a counterweight of around 7.5 lbs. The 5 lb counter weight that I combined with one of the two supplied 2.2 lb counter weights has a turning moment of 7.2 x 11 = 79 lb inches and this worked well. (A slight imbalance helps prevent backlash in the worm drive.) This gives a combined weight of ~16 lbs, well within the mount’s nominal weight allowance. A 6 inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain or a 127mm Macsutov would thus make a very suitable combination providing an additional ~3 lbs of counterweight is added. These two telescope types being ‘short and fat’ have a lower moment of inertia than long refractor tubes or Newtonians making it easier for the mount to control their movement. [Telescope House sell the 1kg Explore Scientific counter weight for £21.50. One might just be sufficient thought the combined weight would be a little low at 6.6 lbs. A second additional weight would allow for a perfect balance.]
I have recently bought one for use largely as an astrophotography mount for use with my longer focal length lenses and small refractors but also with a Celestron 6 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for use at our astronomy society’s star parties.
I purchased it as I was impressed by two aspects of the mount’s design; firstly that the worms used for the RA and Dec drives are belt driven which should give quieter slewing and smother and better tracking than those mounts which are gear driven and secondly the two axes are equipped with variable tension clutches as used on my £3,000 Losmandy GM8. This is very useful when manually moving to an area of sky for wide field imaging as, with the correct tension applied, the camera’s field of view can be easily selected and the mount will stay in position without further adjustment as it starts tracking at a sidereal rate. When slewing, the mount quietly ‘sings’ at quite a high pitch, indicating a very precise stepper motor drive and then, whilst tracking, is essentially silent.
A battery pack to contain 8 C batteries is supplied to power the mount and can be secured in a bracket on one of the tripod legs if an external 12 volt battery (such as Celestron ‘Power Tank’) or AC adapter is not used. Thoughtfully, ‘glow-in-the-dark’ markings are placed on the mount and tripod to avoid tripping over them under very dark skies. As supplied, there is no fine adjustment to set the azimuth of the mount to align on the North Celestial Pole. I have not found this to be a problem but, if desired, an ‘Azimuth Adjuster Adapter’ can be purchased.
As my Android tablet is too old to accept the ‘Explore Stars’ app, I am using an i5 laptop to control the mount. There can be problem with the latest Window’s 10 versions in that it may not immediately connect to the mount’s WiFi channel but there is a ‘work around’ documented by Explore Scientific.
I have found the App to be very nice in use with, in daylight mode, colour images along with descriptions of many of the objects in its very extensive catalogue. If desired, one can switch it to a red ‘night time’ mode. Having levelled the, quite solid, tripod using the built in bubble level, the mount is aligned on the North Pole using a sighting tube through the RA axis, though a polar telescope is available as an accessory. I have made an adapter so that I can use a laser pointer projecting its beam through the sighting tube to give a fairly accurate alignment of the North celestial Pole, though I could also arrange to fit my QHY PoleMaster on the mount for more precise alignment. Before powering up the mount the telescope should be set in the ‘Polar Home Position’ with the scope aligned on the Pole.
Given the site co-ordinates (the app will use the time in the tablet or laptop) either a two or three star alignment procedure is carried out with the mount providing suitable stars to align on.
For each star, fine adjustments are made to centre the star as necessary using adjustable slew rates in RA and Dec. I like the fact that, each time, the selected star is shown on a simple star chart display so one can be sure one is centring on the correct star in a constellation.
I believe that it is also possible to do a ‘1 Object’ alignment’. From the ‘Polar Home Position’, one could (as in the early evening in October 2020) simply select Jupiter and slew to and align on that very obvious target! Then, from the App Commands, select ‘Sync on Target’ and this will have made a single alignment setup. Depending how well the mount is levelled and aligned on the Pole, this may well be sufficient but, of course, a ‘3 Star Alignment’ will give better ‘GoTo’ performance across the sky.
Having completed the alignment, one can, as one would expect, choose from objects within the catalogues that lie above the horizon and the mount will drive to their position and then track them at a suitable rate across the sky. The Explore Stars App provides images and descriptions of many of the most popular objects such as those in the the Solar System or Messier catalogue.
For accessing any of these Solar System or Messier objects one can also use the ‘Search’ Command (perhaps slightly quicker) as well as any of the other objects in the extensive database including the NGC and IC objects.
Though I suspect the majority of users will use the Explore Stars App. Details are given on their website and on YouTube videos to enable one to download the ASCOM software interface so that the mount can be controlled by planetarium software such as Stellarium.
In the early versions of the mount, it would stop tracking if the WiFi connection was lost. I believe that the latest mounts, or with the updated software that can be installed into the mount, this does not happen and the mount will keep tracking usually at sidereal rate. I have not bothered to update the firmware as, with my laptop, I have never lost contact.
One final point. There is a very good user group and I have been very impressed how Jerry Hubbell (what an appropriate surname), Explore Scientific Vice President Engineering, along with Wes Macdonald have been very helpful to any users of the mount who have problems.
First Light Images
This was the ‘first light’ image using the mount of the region around Deneb and was captured using a Sony A7S full frame camera and Teleskop Service 65 mm, 422 mm focal length, quadruplet astrograph. A total of 50, 30 second exposure, frames were aligned and stacked in Sequator. I am sure that longer exposures can be used, but the Sony camera suffers from the ‘Sony Star Eater’ problem with exposures over 30 seconds long.
The second image is a composite of two images taken with the same camera but attached to a Takahashi FS60, 354 mm focal length, telescope. This time, the exposure was just 15 seconds – not to avoid tracking problems but so as not to over expose the heart of the Orion Nebula. This is shown well with the ‘Running Man’ nebula just above and also, just to the left of Alnitak, the lower of the belt stars, the ‘Flame Nebula’. The humidity in the atmosphere when this image was taken has given a diffuse glow around the brighter stars.
The following image is a 96 second total exposure image of M45, the Pleiades Open Cluster, made up just 6, 16 second exposures taken before clouds rolled in. An 80 mm aperture, 500 mm focal length, semi-apo refractor was used with Teleskop Service 2 inch Field Flattener and Sony A7 II full frame camera. With just a short total exposure, one could not expect to see any of the beautiful nebulosity, but I include it to show the quality of the stellar images that can be achieved using the mount.