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Getting started equipment - light setup that can be upgraded incrementally


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I've spent the past few weeks trying to decide on an EAA setup that could be started with a lower budget and upgraded without throwing everything away. I feel that I've reached a standstill at the moment and it would be great if I could get some advice, just to be sure that I'm going in the right direction.

 
My goals are,
- Focus mainly on DSOs. 
- While the main focus should be for EAA, I would like to also involve my two daughters (my oldest one is 5 years old), preferably for visual. They probably won't have enough patience to wait until I polar align and star hop, although we could work something out. 
- I don't have any plans for astrophotography at the moment. I do have a DSLR, but I'll probably get a dedicated CCD/CMOS camera. 
- It will be more fun if it involves some technical aspects, that's one of the main reasons why I would like to focus mainly on EAA. I don't mind the technical complexities, but I'm not much into repetitive work.
- I'm not that much into buying and selling used, hence I'd like a more versatile setup, where each piece could be upgraded individually, or repurposed. 
- Besides the electronic parts, it should be something long lasting. 
 
Besides this, my main constraints would be:
- Since most of my EAA sessions will take place when I'm tired from the day, it would be more appealing if I don't have to lug around a heavy Dobsonian mount. My main observing location will be from my backyard (Bortle 6)
- Budget for the scope and mount around $700 USD. For the CCD, I was thinking at ZWO224MC or something in its price range. I am also open for mono, maybe ZWO290MM, although after reading a bit more, I'm not so sure about the advantages.
- I already have a laptop and since I'll be observing from my garden, I should be able to power everything.
 
At the moment, I have the following options:
 
Mount: AZ GTi or EQ5 (without Goto in the first stage). Since my budget won't allow for an EQ mount with Goto, I'll probably focus more on visual at the beginning. I will add a Goto upgrade kit later, but I'd like to test the waters first. AZ GTi has max payload of 5 kgs, unfortunately I can't find any other cheap AZ mounts with a higher payload. EQ5 seems nice, solid and I'd love to learn to polar align, but I'm afraid that it may become tedious, especially when I'll have less than 1 hour observing time. It's also seems a bit bulky and I'll need to figure out a way to store it. HEQ5 is too expensive at this stage and I can't find a manual version that can be upgraded to goto later.
 
Scopes:
Skywatcher Startraveler 102/500 
  • I've seen it recommended a couple of times, although I'm not sure how usable it is for EAA due to the CA. It may be a bit at the limit for AZ GTi.
 
Skywatcher Evostar 72ED
  • Small for visual, but it's probably better suited for a light goto mount, such as AZ GTI.
  • It comes in a bare kit, after adding all the accessories (diagonal, finder, eyepiece), the price is close to the next option on the list.
 
Skywatcher Evostar 80ED
  • It seems like a great option, although I won't have any budget for a mount. Even though I wanted something that could be upgraded individually, I doubt it will be of much use if I need to hand hold it. I could try to extend a bit the budget to cover an AZ GTi mount, but I'm also a bit worried about the weight. Also, this would bring the budget to over $1000, which also bring other options available. I've added 80ED to my list after seeing how great it looked in a review.
  • I've seen a cheaper version without a microfocuser and accessories (I could get some cheaper ones), but I'm not sure if it's a good idea.
 
Skywatcher 130/650PDS
  • Probably a bit heavy for the AZ GTi mount, hence I'll need to go for an EQ5.
  • Collimation seems something interesting to do, but it's not something that I'd like to do very often, especially when I have only 1-2 hours of observing time. I've read that it might be a bit more tricky to do at lower focal ratios, hence it may require extra equipment with an extra cost. 
  • Bulky to setup, especially if I need to mount it on an EQ5.
  • I've read that mirrors need to be recoated after a while (> 8-10 years).
 
Small Newtonians (< 130mm)
  • Most models seem to be of cheap quality, with too many compromises.
 
What are your recommendations? I know that my budget is very limited, but I'd like to be more conservative at the beginning. I'm not much interested in visual, my seeing conditions are not that great and I also have a light astigmatism which is more bothersome when I'm tired.
 
Thank you
 
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If you are new and you don't want your daughters bored to tears, I strongly suggest  a decent goto mount.

Star hopping with a manual mount is possible, but it's not easy to learn and it is slow

Even a Meade ETX or one  of the small Celestron goto scopes would be better than a manual mount  no matter what mount it is or what scope you put on it. Unless you want to spend most of your time trying to hop from star to star looking for what you actually want to see.

If you want something that's easy to use and will last for a few years at least and let you slowly upgrade the rest of your equipment, I would look at the one of Celestron SE or Evolution scopes

 

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I agree about the goto mount. It's something that I'd like to get from the beginning, or definitively as the next step if the budget doesn't allow. My main concern was that most budget friendly Alt AZ goto mounts have a max payload of 5kg, which limits the scopes that they can be used for. The next options with higher capacity would be cheap EQ mounts that can be upgraded to goto (EQ3, EQM35 or EQ5), but they require more time to setup.

Celestron SE line was on my list, but I dismissed them due to the price and high focal lengths. For the price of a Celestron 5SE, I could get an 80ED APO with an AZ Gti mount (goto). For visual, 5SE might have an edge due to the large aperture, but how would they compare for EAA (deep space)?

I've also considered a goto Mak 127/1500, which is a lot cheaper than a 5SE ($690 vs $1263) locally, but I dismissed it due to the long focal range.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

The first thing is… if you want to do EAA then you need a goto mount. It's not optional. You need your mount to be able to track the sky.

There are ways around this, I suppose, but only if you know what your doing. Goto is by far the easiest and I think you’d be crazy not to budget that as a basic need otherwise I think you'll be frustrated.

The AZGTI and the EQ5 are very different mounts.  The AZGTI is goto to start with… The EQ5 is massive in comparison. If you are looking for a starter setup you should really go for the AZGTI. It’s a great all rounder even though it has a lower payload.

Polar alignment is often made to be more mystical and difficult than it is. The thing is there are different levels of acceptable polar alignment. In fact, you can do it faster than an Alt Az alignment if you aren’t too worried about accuracy. And sometimes - for example in visual - you don’ need ultra accurate alignment. If you want to look at Jupiter, point it vaguely north and find Jupiter and set it to track and your done, just look through the scope. Of course, if you want to take 30 minute exposure pictures that’s different thing! To get really accurate polar alignment is incredibly difficult and time consuming.

Most people only need rough polar alignment where you adjust the screws until you get Polaris in the right place in a viewfinder. It's relatively straightforward, though depending on your mount's design, it can be annoying. 

That said… if you’re hesitant about EQ, you probably should go for an Alt Az mount. Most people prefer that for simplicity anyway. I prefer EQ mounts but that's my personal preference and I think I'm in a minority. The main advantage of EQ for EAA is you can have longer exposures. But... for EAA using modern cameras like the ZWOs that doesn’t matter. The AZGTI will track ok enough for EAA on a sensitive camera (like the ones you mention). I con comfortably do 15 second exposures on my AZGTI which is enough for most stuff in my light polluted location. You can convert the AZGTI to EQ mode if you want to experiment with polar alignment. However, I've been using it in EQ mode have been disappointed because it feels a bit like a hack rather than design. It does work, though takes more fiddling than most EQ mounts. 

So, to be specific about your basic questions - with EAA the best things for DSO viewing are a fast telescope (low f ratio) and a sensitive camera (low read noise, high QE). 

Definitely get a dedicated camera, the 224MC or 290MM are two of the best cameras available for the money. Also check the ASI385, though it is a little more expensive. The 224 is in colour, and the 290 is black and white, but gives you more detail and fainter objects.

Personally I found mono more fun and I don’t miss colour. At first I did (I have both the 224 and the 290) which is why I tried a colour camera. However, the extra sensitivity is more fun than colour for me. You may differ. Again... personal preference.

Of the scopes you talk about… you are right about the 127 SkyMax mak. It's a great little scope but I'm not convinced about it for DSO EAA as a base since it requires extra bits to get working well. Planets and lunar it'll be great out of the box.

Skywatcher Startraveler 102/500

  • Good scope but not really what you want for EAA due to the f ratio being too slow for DSO.
  • I have one and use it for lunar and planetary. CA is an issue but it’s fine, it’s also a good for the price scope.

EDIT: Sorry - I've just seen that I don't have one. I have the Evostar 102 - which is f11, not f4.9 - that's what the above refers to.

  • The Startraveler 102 is fast enough for EAA use.
  • Its a good price for a refractor, however... This is where personal preferences come in. At that price I'd actually prefer to spend a fraction more and get a newtonian like the 130PDS. But... my preferences tend toward cheap newtonian light buckets and expensive nicely made refractors! Most cheap refractors tend to have too many compromises for me which pushes me towards a reflector without CA. 
  • CA is less of a deal on a mono camera, so if you get the 290 you won't notice it so much (it's still there, but it's not so obvious). 

Skywatcher Evostar 72ED

  • Good scope but you’ll struggle with some DSO. I have a 80mm refractor and my interest - galaxies - aren’t the best on it. It's fine for nebulae and our neighbouring galaxies.
  • Great for grab and go. I really like 70/80mm for visual. Especially moon, planets clusters etc.
  • Good on the AZGTI

Skywatcher Evostar 80ED

  • Very nice but if budget is an issue… the problem is refractors are relatively expensive for the aperture. Especially good ones. Even cheap good ones like this Skywatcher.

Skywatcher 130/650PDS

  • This should be fine on the AZGTI. I haven't used one on it, but others in the forum have. You can check those posts out or reach out to those users to see their experience. I've actually used my 150PDS on my AZGTI. It worked, it was slow to settle after a move, but it worked... (I've only done it once!).
  • Don’t worry about mirror recoating. It’s like worrying about having to repaint your car. Maybe theoretically you have to if something goes wrong but it’s very rare anyone really has to do it except through choice or accidental damage.
  • It’ll do DSO really well (there is a 130pds thread on the forums for pictures).
  • It’s also good for visual if you pick the right eyepieces (check out the astronomy tools fov calculator).
  • Collimation and it’s difficulty is overplayed. I have the 150pds. Yes collimation will be a thing. But for a beginner you won’t know or notice until you start trying to figure out how to make your observations better.  Basically all it is is turning a few screws on the bottom of the scope and lining up some dots. It’s fiddly but not crazy hard if you have collimation cap which costs all of about £6. You don’t need a laser collimator or expensive assists. And… Even when you do do it, it takes a minute or two nothing more. It’s like sweeping the step, you may want to do it every month or two but it only takes you five minutes and isn’t that difficult once you’ve done it once or twice. And actually... maybe you don't care because you have more important challenges to deal with than a bit of coma. When you start to care about the coma enough, you won't be worried about it being difficult.
  • Check these links out:
  • https://www.firstlightoptics.com/other-collimation-tools/rigel-aline-collimation-cap.html
  • https://garyseronik.com/a-beginners-guide-to-collimation/

So… for me it’s not a difficult decision. Get the 130PDS and the AZGTI and either camera you suggest. The AZGTI will run the 130PDS ok and it is a good telescope for EAA. Buy some nice eyepieces and it’ll be good for visual too. The 130 on the AZGIT will be fine for EAA and slightly bouncy for visual though not unbearable. You just need to be careful when viewing not to touch it too much.

On the camera… do you like colour and less detail or b+w and more detail. That, to me, is your biggest unknown...

Hope that's helpful!

Edited by London_David
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On 28/06/2020 at 01:15, London_David said:

The first thing is…

Hope that's helpful!

This is one of the most comprehensive posts I have ever seen on any thread ever. 

I'm learning that the AZGTi is a pretty versatile mount. What tripod do you use it with?

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Hahaha. Thanks.
 

I currently use the one it came with but it’s not very good!

Previously I used the sticks from a Manfrotto 501 video tripod. The AZGTI will fit into any regular tripod with a standard central 3/4” screw which is pretty handy.

When travelling I take the carbon fiber legs from a photo tripod I have. Ultra light and pretty stable if you add some central weight.

 

Edited by London_David
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Thank you very much David for the comprehensive post! And many thanks to everyone else that contributed to this thread.

I was very close to ordering a 150P-DS and EQ5 Goto bundle but I stopped on the last step of the checkout process :). A big equatorial mount with a newtonian on top might be a good match for EAA and maybe even astrophotography, but it doesn't seem so great when there's finally a night with good seeing, during a work day when you only have 1 hour. Involving small children would also be hard, since they probably can't even reach the eyepiece of a newtonian on an EQ mount. I probably can't even reach the eyepiece when it's pointed at zenith either...

With all that being considered, I decided to go for a slightly bigger refractor: Skywatcher Star Traveler 120/600 with an AZ3 mount. It sure gets it share of bashing due to the CA, but after using it for three nights (out of which only one was with decedent seeing, but with the full moon up) I really don't find the CA that bothering. Yes, you can see it when you push the scope to 60x on brighter targets - e.g. Jupiter, but it's not that bad - in fact, I don't even think someone that doesn't know much about CA will notice it. At 60x it goes away almost entirely if you stop the aperture with the provided cap. It probably is a bit harder to manage at higher magnifications, where CA will be stronger and stopping down the aperture might also cause a noticeable dim effect. 

The scope also comes with an amici prism, which I suspect also causes some CA of its own. The bundled 25mm eyepiece is decent, but it provides only about 24x magnification, almost the same as my binoculars. The 10mm eyepiece has a 60x magnification, but the eye relief is also quite short. For now, I've ordered a Skywatcher Deluxe 2" mirror diagonal which hopefully will also improve the image quality. I am a bit concerned about the lack of inwards focus that some users have reported when using 2" diagonals, let's see how it goes.

As for the EAA, I've decided to take things slow. I've ordered a manual EQ5 together with the telescope, so that I can practice setting it up, polar aligning and maybe even switching to it instead of the humble AZ3 for visual. In terms of quality, even though EQ5 is still a cheap mount, it's definitively in a different class than AZ3 - the quality is much better and it seems more refined. But to be honest, I didn't even try it outside yet :). I was more interested in trying out the telescope than the mount. I'll probably try it out this week, if the weather permits, so that I can get a feel of the entire setup and how much time it would take.

I do plan to upgrade EQ5 to goto, but now I'm trying to decide which approach to take: the SynScan GOTO kit seems like the simplest option, but paying 400 EUR for two stepper motors, a control box and a handset seems very expensive. You can get a decent 3D printer for half of that money, which has more parts than this kit (and some might even have better quality). I'm also a bit concerned about the noise, since it uses metal gears instead of belts and in most videos it sounds very noisy.

The other approach would be an OnStep kit, which seems to be doable for 1/4 of the money. However it requires more time investment and considering the current world wide situation, it will probably be a bit harder to source some parts that are not available from Europe. I'm comfortable with electronics and it really seems like a great project to try on, but it will probably take me a few months to complete it.

Overall, I'm quite happy with ST120. Its main down sides aren't that bad and the form factor is quite good. It's really a joy to be able to sit comfortably on chair and admire the views through it, something which is not really possible with other mounts and scope types. I do have to mention that the comfortable part applies only to targets between 10-45 degrees altitude. Higher targets are no fun at all, due to the 45 degree amici prism, but hopefully a proper mirror diagonal will fix this.

My next steps would be to add goto to EQ5 and get a dedicated astro cam (I'm looking at ZWO ASI290 mono at the moment), but I'll probably take my time with these.

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I seem to be on a very similar trajectory to you. Like you, I bought the SW ST 120/600 as a first step. My viewing platform is a cramped balcony which won't accommodate a reflector or dob. I bought a Opticstar EQ700 mount which is a very solid for the money but my balcony is not big enough for the legs to fully extend. I also bought a SW 90 deg prism as I knew I wouldn't be able to use the 45 deg prism in so little a space and I wanted the same orientation as my binos. I also bought a BST Starguider 18mm (s/h from this forum). I tried it all out last night for the first time and I must admit that I got into a bit of a tangle with the EQ mount but started to get the hang of it towards the end. I really like the screw up eyecup of the BST Starguider, the supplied eyepieces not so much as there's too much stray light where I live (although draping a towel over my head helps). I like the view through Starguider so I will probably get some more. This case arrived today https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Tripod-Photography-Carry-Case-Bag-70x20cm-Sponge-Padded-With-Adjustable-Strap/283801625652?ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT&_trksid=p2057872.m2749.l2649  and it fits the scope perfectly - bargain !

Since the sky is so light polluted in London, I am keen on the idea of seeing more than I otherwise would by using EAA ( and sitting in a nice warm room whilst doing so !) so I am thinking in terms of a motorised mount and a camera in the medium term, though like you, I am going to take my time.

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I've looked at it as well, but the price difference between EQ3 and EQ5 didn't seem that big - between the GoTo versions it's 150 GBP, but EQ3 comes with an aluminium tripod. In terms of payload capacity, at least on paper, EQ3 seems very similar with AZ GTi, with a max payload of 5kg. Although EQ3 seems to be a bit more sturdy. Is there a bigger difference between them in real life?

I do have some second thoughts about AZ GTi, I could get it for the price of the GoTo upgrade kit for EQ5. Or even less without the tripod, which doesn't seem that great. But I'm not sure how well ST120 would fare on it - it's not that heavy, but it's a bit long. Other than that, I should probably try to invest some time in making the OnStep goto kit for EQ5.

@Surreydocker It's funny that you've mentioned the towel part, I've tried exactly that two nights ago. My best views are SW-W-NW, where the sky is quite dark, except for 2-3 street lights. I've managed to find a spot where they are blocked by vegetation, but it seems that they still create some diffuse light. The full moon definitively didn't help either, but I'm not sure how much from the light was from the full moon versus those street lights.

Could you compare the 90 deg prism with the 45 amici one? Is there a big difference in terms of brightness and visual quality?

How about the BST 18mm vs the bundled 25mm? It's probably harder to compare these, due to the different focal lengths, but did you notice any big differences?

I'm still waiting for my 2" mirror diagonal, since it wasn't in stock. I've also ordered an S/H Explore Scientific 2x Focal Extender, just to try out some different focal lengths. On my last session I've tried to split Izar with the bundled 10mm eyepiece, but I wasn't even close. Later I've searched a bit and it seems that around 150x or more magnification is needed for it. I did manage to split Albireo which was really beautiful. 

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There is a pretty big difference in real life. Overall the AZGTI is much more compact and I'd say can only take about 75% of the payload. For instance, the EQ3Pro carry's the 150PDS with ease, and while I have used the 150PDS on my AZGTI it's very wobbly and I wouldn't recommend it. It works for EAA but not visual at all. Put it this way: I once accidentally gave the 150DPS a nudge when on the AZGTI and it almost fell over.

I got my AZGTI for travel. I can get an 80mm refractor, the AZGTI mount, a small computer, eyepieces, cameras and the tripod in a nike skateboard backpack and I take it on the plane in hand luggage. Its over the official weight but no-one ever checks because I can sling it over my shoulder and no-one is any the wiser. It would simply be impossible to do anything remotely like that with the EQ3. It's much bulkier heavier and more awkwardly shaped.

The EQ3 Pro is old reliable tech - all mechanics no electronics, no built in power and it relies on the external handset. The AZGTI is much more modern based around wifi control with batteries and brains built in and using a wireless external app for control. For the first 18 months when I started I'd set up the EQ3 and the 150PDS in my bathroom and point it out the window... so it is small for a mount, but not nearly as small as the AZGIT. If size is your thing, I don't know of anything smaller and more portable than the AZGTI. The Avalon mounts are much better (and more beautiful) on size/payload ratio, but they're vastly more expensive.

If you want to use the AZGTI in EQ mode you can, that may improve the stability, but I haven't tried it personally. I keep my 80mm or 100mm refractor on it most of the time and it's very happy with that. I think you might start to struggle with anything over 100mm on the AZGTI. Depending on the length of the tube my SW 100mm f11 is pretty much at the edge of where I'm comfortable with balance on the AZGTI. The weight isn't a problem, but the balance on a long scope is. 60-90mm is probably optimum size for it with OTAs about 40-80cm long.

The tripod on the AZGTI is okay. It's not awful, but it's not great. I have several photo/film tripods and I prefer using those since they're much lighter easier to use and generally more stable. It never going to compete with Sachtler Flowtec legs, but then those are £2k. To be honest though, right now I have it sitting on the original tripod and it's been on the skywatcher tripod for months. I use it most nights like that since my other tripods are often needed for other things and I'd rather have it ready to go on okay legs than have to set it up with amazing ones. If you have a good tripod, save your money. If you want a good tripod you might use for other things, buy something else, if you want something that is good enough and relatively inexpensive, the tripod is fine.

 

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On 08/07/2020 at 09:05, Surreydocker said:

@chrisv I haven't had much chance to compare diagonals or eyepieces yet but I will try over the next week or so. I bought a budget 90 deg prism so I'm not expecting to see much difference.

Got a chance to compare a few things last night. The 90 & 45 deg prisms are optically similar but I also managed to focus without a diagonal and that appeared better so I think you will see an improvement with a quality diagonal. Of the 3 that I have, the 18mm BST is my preferred eyepiece - the field of view seems wider than the bundled 25mm. I agree with others that the 10mm is not great - I much prefer the 18mm BST with a 2x Barlow. The focusser on the ST 120 is very poor when you get into higher magnifications. There is a retrofit dual speed Crayford focusser available but it bumps the cost up somewhat.

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