A work began in December 2014.
Dedicated to Asbytec.
Among the catadioptrics, the Maksutov Cassegrain has justifiably earned a solid reputation as an excellent high resolution telescope. The Maksutov design combines a spherical mirror with a longer native focal length (slower f/3 relative aperture) than a typical Schmidt Cassegrain (f/2) with a weakly negative meniscus lens in a design that takes advantage of all the surfaces being nearly spherically symmetrical. The negative lens is usually full diameter and placed at the entrance pupil of the telescope (commonly called a corrector plate or meniscus corrector shell). The design corrects the problems of off-axis aberrations such as coma found in reflecting telescopes while also correcting for chromatic aberration. It was patented in 1941 by Russian optician Dmitri Dmitrievich Maksutov after a five year spell of careful ray tracing and prototype building, which culminated in the first working model produced in the autumn of the same year. He based his design on the idea behind the Bernard Schmidt’s camera, which used the spherical errors of a negative lens to correct the opposite errors inherent of a spherical primary mirror. Because the design utilises all-spherical elements, it greatly aids in mass fabrication.
Similar independent meniscus telescope designs were also patented in 1941 by Albert Bouwers (his 1941 concentric meniscus telescope), K. Penning and Dennis Gabor (a catadioptric non-monocentric design).A culture of secrecy during World War II kept these inventors from knowing about each other’s designs, but rightly or wrongly, the design was named after Maksutov and the rest as they say is history.
This design appeared commercially in Lawrence Braymer’s 1954 Questar telescope and in Perkin–Elmer designer John Gregory’s competing patent for a Maksutov–Cassegrain. Commercial use of Gregory’s design was explicitly reserved for Perkin–Elmer but was published as an amateur telescope design in a 1957 issue of Sky and Telescope in both f/15 and f/23 iterations. Most Maksutovs manufactured today are this type of ‘Cassegrain’ design (called either a “Gregory–Maksutov” or “spot-Maksutov”) that use all-spherical surfaces and have, as a secondary, a small aluminized spot on the inner face of the corrector. This has the advantage of simplifying construction. It also has the advantage of fixing the alignment of the secondary and eliminates the need for a ‘spider’ that would cause diffraction spikes. The disadvantage is that, if all spherical surfaces are used, such systems have to have focal ratios above f/15 to avoid aberrations. Also, a degree of freedom in correcting the optical system by changing the radius of curvature of the secondary is lost, since that radius is the same as that of the rear meniscus face. Gregory himself, in a second, faster (f/15) design, resorted to aspherization of the front corrector surface (or the primary mirror) in order to reduce aberrations. This has led to other designs with aspheric or additional elements to further reduce off-axis aberration. This type of Maksutov-Cassegrain’s high focal ratio and narrower field of view makes them more suitable for lunar and planetary imaging and any other type of observing where a narrow field high power view is just fine for resolving tightly packed globular clusters and double stars.
The Rutten Maksutov–Cassegrain (also called a Rumak or Sigler Maksutov) has a separate secondary mirror mounted on the back of the meniscus corrector, sometimes similar to the corrector/mirror holder configurations found in commercial Schmidt–Cassegrains. This provides an extra degree of freedom in correcting aberration by changing the curvature of the corrector and the secondary independently. Specifically it allows the designer to aspherize the secondary to provide a flatter field and slightly better colour correction than traditional spot Maksutovs, with less off-axis coma. Mounting the secondary on the corrector also limits diffraction spikes. This version is named after the work of the Dutch optical designer, Harrie Rutten.
Are Rumaks something to aspire to over the Gregory Mak? That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. To my way of thinking, a Gregory Mak is more than up to the task.
Some Historical Models
Perhaps the most iconic of modern telescopes is the beautiful Questar 3.5, a classic all metal, 90mm Gergory Maksutov that has changed very little in over half a century. While expensive, it is a great work of art and is still highly favoured by telescopists in the 21st century. The company also make larger Maksutovs (the Questar 7, for example) at (you’ve guessed it) much higher prices. Celestron was the first to respond to the high cost of the superlative Questar and marketed their orange tube C90 Maksutov in the late 1970’s for less than $500.
Optically, these were said to be quite variable, from mediocre to excellent. The big game changer came in the 1990s when Meade revolutionized amateur astronomy by introducing the ETX, first in the form of the RA, which had a built in clock drive and then shortly afterwards with the ETX EMC which featured full go-to capability. As an owner of the original ETX 90 RA, I can vouch for the excellent optics – on par with that of the far more expensive Questar 3.5. And though my unit is approaching twenty years of age, the mirror is in excellent condition, as are the coatings on the front corrector plate.
Shortly after the launch of the ETX 90, Meade introduced two larger instruments from the same family – the ETX 105 and the ETX 125. I spent a considerable time looking through the 125 and can vouch for the razor sharp optics on these units when conditions allow.
Meade also produced a 7inch (178mm) f/15 Gregory Mak as part of their highly successful LX-200 series of computerised telescopes which received very high praise from discriminating lunar and planetary observers who raved about their apo-like optics. These telescopes are now considered highly collectible classics from the late 20th century.
Celestron has recently revamped their venerable C90 in a neat black-tubed spotting scope. Costing less than $200, it provides excellent optics in an ergonomic package, eminently suitable for general nature studies and astronomy. It has to be one of the best bargains in the hobby today.
Despite these innovations it is arguably the range produced by Orion (USA) and SkyWatcher that has made most heads turn in the Maksutov camp in recent years. Following fast on the heels of the better established small companies, Synta churned out an exciting suite of Gregory Maks in the 90mm – 180mm range which could be purchased as complete packages including a mount or as optical tube assemblies. Over the last six months or so, I have been carefully evaluating an Orion re-branded version of Synta’s 180mm model – the telescope that has really opened my eyes to the tremendous versatility of the Maksutov design as a visual instrument.
Fit ’n’ Finish
The Orion 180mm Mak is no Questar 7 that’s for sure. But it’s got a few things going for it that makes it an exciting prospect even in comparison to the legendary Questar. For one thing, the corrector plate is made from the highest quality Schott optical glass and has the very latest in multi-layer anti-reflection coatings. The primary spherical mirror is over-coated too which will ensure its longevity over many decades if properly looked after. As a result, it may surprise you that it will yield slightly brighter images than older Questar 7s what with their more primitive magnesium fluoride based anti-reflection coatings.
The instrument is focused in a completely different way to a refractor and involves moving the primary mirror either closer or further away from the front corrector plate. I received the unit in perfect collimation after a long road trip and all of the components have remained in perfect alignment despite me taking the entire instrument apart to flock the inside tube as well as the long, slender baffle tube leading to the eyepiece. There is not many telescopes on God’s Earth that would allow such license. Remarkable!
The telescope equipped with tube rings and a 50mm finder tips the scales at under 20 pounds and is less than half a metre long, so it can be used on a light weight mount so saving quite a considerable cost to the user. This makes the instrument super portable, much more so than the equivalent refractor.
Maksutovs and Acclimation
Large catadioptrics can take some time to acclimate, especially if taken from a warm indoor environment to a chilly night outside. But this is not unique to this telescope genre; all large telescopes will struggle for a while before they stabilise in their new environment. Thankfully there are ways to ameliorate this. I’ve often taken my 17cm Orion Maksutov out from the warmth of my living room into my dry, unheated shed and after just a few hours it was delivering pinpoint stars in temperatures just a few degrees above zero. I’ve also had it working perfectly well in sub-zero temperatures.
The same instrument can be made permanently grab ‘n’ go by keeping it in the same environment while not in use. Others resort to active cooling using fans that blow cool air across the optical components. Some have suggested using cheap ice packs to create strong thermal gradients to draw heat out of the instrument. All these measures will accelerate the process of thermal acclimation. That being said, there are a few individuals (the ‘poodle pushers’), who have persisted in wilful scaremongering about these telescopes by asserting that they won’t acclimate in many locations. I was alerted to this after discovering that a seasoned observer located in La Union in the Philippines, who has done great work with a 6–inch Maksutov, over many years, enjoys diurnal temperature changes of ~10 degrees Celsius. This prompted me to do research into diurnal temperature variations and what I discovered was quite revealing; the vast majority (pick a location, any location LOL) of locations where humans live and observe enjoy annual diurnal temperature variations of the order of 10C, so telescopes of most any design will acclimate. At my location, these variations amount to little more than a few degrees (check out Glasgow climate and its average high and low temperatures throughout the year) and I have never had any significant issues with my 18cm f/15 Maksutov. The worst places, which exhibit diurnal temperature swings of the order of 20C or more, are located in deserts and at high altitude.
Maksutovs will work nearly anywhere on Earth. Laziness and ill-preparedness have prevented many from discovering this. Others have been led to believe that they won’t acclimate. But I wonder if this is the result of cultivating an elaborate lie; a bad meme spread on tinternet. I remember a well known American astronomy couple who boldly wore T-shirts emblazoned with a ‘No to Catadioptrics’ logo. How myopic is that? How misleading is that?
Recurring interest in the Maksutov Design over the Decades
There seems to be a recurring interest in this design, its elegance of form, extreme portability for its aperture, rigidity of the various components in the optical train and so on and so forth. It’s interesting that three of the leading amateur ‘scope makers in the USA; TEC, Astrophysics and D&G have offered Maksutov or classical cassegrains to their customers. The leading UK telescope manufacturer, Orion Optics, Newcastle under Lyme, England, also produce their own versions – the OMC series;
Zeiss too seem to have offered Maksutovs for amateur astronomers back in the day. And then there are the various incarnations from Intes and Lomo etc etc.
Why do you suppose the Maksutov Cassegrain has garnered such interest from these opticians of skill? The reasons are clear to me. The extreme portability and ergonomics of the design is a major plus of course, and the not too inconsiderable fact that they serve up images midway between an SCT and a fine refractor, has led leading telescope makers to maintain an interest in building them and bringing them to market.
Having said that, in independent bench tests, the mass market Maksutov fairs very well in comparison to custom designed units made by leading telescope makers.
I found one test on Mr. Rohr’s website, where he evaluated the 6 inch SkyWatcher model;
Herr Rohr also evaluated a 8-inch TEC Mak.
Not bad quality from the mass market Chinese Mak eh?
That kind of quality is more than enough to achieve superlative visual results as is showcased in the next section.
A Case Study; Asbytec’s Work with a 6 inch Orion Maksutov
As mentioned previously, dedicated observers using the Maksutov have produced some very high quality work. Based in La Union in the Philippines, Asbytec has faithfully used his 6 inch Orion Mak over several years to produce an excellent portfolio. Many of his drawings have appeared on the online telescope site Cloudynights. His work highlights the high resolution capabilities of the Maksutov under good seeing conditions and his trained eyes have really pushed the envelope in terms of what can be seen. My own but less extensive work with its larger Orion sibling dovetails very nicely with his.
Imaging with the Maksutov
The long focal length of the Maksutov makes it especially suited to lunar and planetary imaging. The majority of other instruments require powerful Barlow lenses or Powermates to boost the f ratio to about f/20 ( generally considered to be the sweet spot for imagers) but with many Maks having relative apertures of 15 or so, little in the way of auxiliary amplifiers are needed to get to that optimal imaging speed. Richard Garrad, an imager from Utah, USA, has used his Orion 180mm Mak to great effect capturing detailed images of the bright planets and the vast lunar regolith. You can see examples of his work and gain an appreciation of the excellent resolution and light gathering power of the same instrument here.
Notes from the field
To get the best performance out of the telescope, I flocked its main tube as well as the long baffle tube connected to the primary mirror. This resulted in a small increase in the contrast of daylight images (which can ‘flood’ the tube with off axis light) as well as on bright objects like the Moon and bright planets. After testing a few different types of diagonals, I came to the conclusion that a good quality prism diagonal was preferable to its dielectric mirror based counterpart. Well made prism diagonals seem to do a better job curtailing stray light and improve contrast. That said, the model used was not one of the expensive prism diagonals but a no frills 1.25” Celestron model # 94115-A, which I consider an excellent value in today’s market.
Like the classical refractor, one of the great joys of the Maksutov telescope is that it can be used with fairly inexpensive eyepieces owing to its high f ratio. Simple Plossl and orthoscopic eyepieces give excellent edge to edge performance in this telescope so the user will not incur a large monetary sacrifice in using the instrument. For low power work, I elected to use a SkyWatcher 32mm Plossl delivering a power of 84x and a half a degree field. For higher power applications I employ a 24-8mm Mark III Baader Hyperion zoom, the performance of which is excellent.
One might think that such a large aperture telescope would be unsuitable for nature studies but I found it to be excellent in this capacity. What makes it so versatile in this respect is its low mass and tremendous back focus. You can focus on flowers just a few metres away and examine their glory at powers up to 300x. I found this to be quite an enjoyable pastime during the summer months. Without the addition of various extenders etc, you simply can’t do that with a refractor of the same size.
Comparing its double star efficacy with that of my fine 5” f/12 achromatic refractor, I found the Orion Maksutov to be noticeably superior at ferreting out sub arc second pairs such as the 0.9” Lambda Cygni and on one occasion, a big surprise from the star O Sigma 507 (RA 23h 49 min, Dec +64 degrees 54 min). The A/C components (mag 6.8/8.6), separated by about a Jupiter diameter and arranged roughly north-south, were easy pickings at low power but I was more interested to see what happened to the primary as I cranked up the magnification to 340x. So I swung the system to the east end of the field and let the vibrations settle down. To my sheer amazement, I glimpsed (often for several moments at a time) the secondary (A/B; mag 6.8/7.8) just (and only just) touching the primary, and extending away to the northwest! I repeated this several times within a few minutes to make sure I wasn’t seeing a diffraction artifact. As I have described elsewhere in my double star surveys, it looked for all the world like a “a tiny little snowman in the sky” morphed time and again by the vagaries of the atmosphere. Now, my records show that A/B is currently of the order of 0.7 arc seconds apart! This is truly an extraordinary result, as the components were not merely elongated but very nearly separated to my average eye. Clearly, the Maksutov was operating real close to its theoretical limits (so far as is known conventionally). Let me tell you you’ll struggle to get this kind of performance out of the finest 6 inch refractor money can buy!
This is a new ‘personal best’ for me. If anything, it shows that I can go beyond the 0.9 arc second barrier under the best conditions which were clearly on offer at this location (Torphins in Northeast Scotland) on this evening. That said, my notes show that I already enjoyed excellent seeing here before, albeit using smaller instruments.
In other tests, I turned both the Orion Maksutov and my high quality 5″ refractor on Psi Cassiopeiae. The primary is a 5th magnitude K spectral class star and just east of it lies the faint magnitude 9.1 and 10.0 (C & D components) separated by 2.3”. Looking first through the large Maksutov, I could see the exceedingly faint pair at 170x. The challenge here is that the C and D components are both very close and very faint and the bright orange glow from the primary right next door doesn’t help. In comparison, the 5 inch refractor really struggled. I convinced myself that it was doable – but only just! Thus, there was a clear performance difference between the instruments here.
The same is true of its lunar and planetary performance. If fully acclimated and under good conditions, the Orion Maksutov will comfortably outperform the 5 inch refractor. This was made apparent by studying the craterlets on the floor of Plato. The largest – A, B and C – can be seen in the 5-inch refractor but are better defined in the larger Maksutov. The D craterlet, which was distinctly seen in the Maksutov, was invisible in the refractor under the same conditions.
Preliminary tests comparing the views of the 5 inch refractor with the Orion Maksutov confirms that the latter can also resolve significantly finer atmospheric details on Jupiter than the former. The brighter image of the 170mm Maksutov allows greater magnifications to be pressed into service and under good conditions shows the true colour of ovals and barges.
Though opinions differ, like many larger aperture telescopes, I believe the Maksutov does benefit from the use of filters to bring out very subtle planetary details on the precipice of visibility. Blue filters (the 80A and 82A) are excellent for bringing out belt details, while the Baader Neodymium, Contrast Booster and TeleVue Bandmate planetary filters show great promise in enhancing low contrast details on the Jovian disk.
Some amateur astronomers consider the Maksutov to be a rather specialised, high power, high resolution instrument, but that does not mean it can’t be put to good use as an effective instrument on deep sky objects. Truth be told, the vast majority of these objects are well framed within the smaller field of view of the Maksutov. In this capacity, I enjoyed many evenings studying the glories of the late summer Milky Way through Cygnus and Cassiopeia. Small open clusters are excellent targets for this telescope, as are globular clusters, owing to the telescope’s extra light grasp over a mid-sized refractor. The finest 5-6 inch refractor money can buy will not give you an image of M13 like this economical Maksutov. Everything is easier to see and better resolved. The Orion 18cm Maksutov is also a wonderful telescope for studying planetary nebulae. The views I had of M57, M27 and NGC 6826 were simply spell binding, exploiting the natural, high magnifications achieved by this instrument.
There is nothing preventing a determined observer from sketching larger swathes of sky than can be captured in the small field of view of the Maksutov. Here is a modest sketch I made of the Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) in Perseus. Because the maximum field of view presented by the 32mm Plossl is only of the order of 0.5 degrees, it cannot wholly capture both clusters in the same field of view. Both NGC 869 and NGC 884 individually span some 18’ of sky and are separated by about a Moon diameter (25’). Nevertheless I wanted to include both in the sketch, so I took to ‘stitching’ them together by moving the telescope slowly eastward from the core of NGC 869 towards NGC 884.
In this way the traditional limitations of the Maksutov’s small field can be overcome; in just the same way that imagers have done with their CCD cameras.
The Orion 180mm Maksutov Cassegrain represents an excellent alternative to a medium aperture apochromatic refractor but is more closely akin to what you would expect from a long focal length classical refractor of the highest quality. The telescope will need some time to acclimate in winter, especially if taken from a heated inside room to the cool of the night air, but storing it in a dry unheated outhouse should alleviate any problems in this regard. Its ultra-compactness and relatively light weight for its aperture will allow you to transport the instrument safely in the back of your car to a dark sky site. In today’s market, where some amateurs obsess over high quality refractors costing a second mortgage to acquire, this magnificent, ergonomic telescope represents an exciting breath of fresh air! A telescope like this would have astounded an observer in my father’s time and he would have needed the wealth of a Sultan to acquire one of this quality. To think that one can get this kind of performance out of a telescope that cost just a few hundred pounds, is only half a metre long and weighs a mere 20 pounds, is a joyous revelation.
Why would anyone want anything more from a lightweight, ultraportable visual ‘scope?
Update: March 19, 2015
Having spent a fairly cold winter with this instrument, I am delighted to report that it has earned my deep admiration. Out of curiosity, a second time: I deliberately unscrewed the back, removed the flocking from the long baffle tube on the primary and reapplied fresh stuff LOL. When I put it back together, it still held perfect collimation as judged by a high power star test on two separate nights! This telescope is amazingly resilient to mis-collimation! Try it out for yourself! I think the rigidity of the aluminised spot on the secondary helps make this magic happen.
I have managed its ‘alleged’ thermal problems throughout this time and never once have I needed to resort to some kind of active cooling. I will re-state what I said previously; if the telescope is kept in a dry unheated shed, it is effectively in a permanent ‘grab n’ go’ state. Only the local seeing conditions will curtail its efficacy.
My family and friends have enjoyed some positively charming views of Jupiter, the Moon and a variety of deep sky objects with the telescope.
Here is a drawing of Jupiter I made on the evening of March 24 during a spell of fine weather.
In addition, the telescope has continued to provide excellent views of tricky double stars. Challenging pairs such as Eta Geminorum (Propus), Iota Leonis and Eta Orionis have been successfully split under good seeing conditions.
Since first beginning my assessment of this large Gregory Maksutov, I have been made aware of two independent tests, both of which suggest that the optical quality of this telescope is very high.
I have had many opportunities to compare the views of Jupiter through my fine 5-inch f/12 achromat the 17cm Maksutov during bouts of fine seeing. The latter shows a good bit more detail than the long glass. My conclusions mirror this gentleman’s findings when he compared a 5″ f/15 refractor and a 7″ f/15 Intes Mak on the Moon and planets.
I have named this telescope ‘Cornelia’ and she will remain in my stable, serving as a powerful and ultra-portable telescope.**
Update: April 23, 2015
More Mak varieties have now hit the market.
This is an exciting time for the Maksutov Cassegrain!
** The instrument was eventually sold on and the funds raised were given to a charity supporting the earthquake victims of Nepal in mid-2015. These days the author makes do with an excellent Skywatcher 8-inch f/6 Dobsonian.