Recommending a first telescope to someone can be a daunting task.There are just so many good starter ‘scopes on the market these days that it’s hard to see the woods for the trees. Many newcomers can be led astray by clever advertising, shills promoting tiny, expensive instruments, and peer pressure. But in the end, what most people want from a first telescope is a hassle free instrument that just delivers the readies without much in the way of effort. Many would like a versatile telescope that can be used for terrestrial viewing but also double up as a decent astronomical portal that can reveal to them some of the showpieces of the sky.
Coupled to this is the distinct possibility that the newcomer may not have a lasting interest in the hobby with the usual outcome; the telescope sits unused in its box, gathering dust and relegated to a dank basement or attic for the rest of its life. Unfortunately my experience with dealing with many newcomers over the years suggets that only a small minority stick with the hobby for any length of time and quickly move on. Would it be wise to recommend an expensive telescope with these distinct possibilities on the table? I would say, no!
That’s the principal reason why I usually recommend the ShortTube 80. It’s a nice, compact refracting telescope that works well straight out of the box. No need to contemplate how to collimate a Newtonian reflector, or dealing with the narrow field of view and thermal issues associated with small catadioptrics. In my experience, most folk are wowed the first time they plonk an eyepiece into the diagonal of the ShortTube; just aiming at an object, turning the focusing wheel and obtaining, a sharp, high-contrast image with a wide field of view. Their first view of the Moon or the brilliant Pleiades cluster can be an awe-inspiring event that deepens their appreciation of the power of the telescope. And during the day, the same instrument can be pressed into service up as a super spotting telescope to appreciate the beauty of the creation.
SkyWatcher has brought to market their incarnation of the ShortTube; the Star Travel 80 AZ3 package, which comes complete with the telescope, mount, extendable aluminium tripod, a couple of eyepieces, a 90 degree star diagonal, a red dot finder and a 2x Barlow lens. And you get all of this for the princely sum of £134 UK. I recommended this package to the mother of a mathematics student of mine, who was looking for a small telescope as a Chrstmas gift for her husband. They managed to put most of it together correctly but stumbled on a few problems and asked me if I’d take a look at it for them.
Naturally, I obliged.
First, let’s take a look at the telescope; the optical tube is the usual aluminium black diamond livery with a simple but highly effective rack and pinion focuser. The tube rings fit well and are supplied with a small dovetail plate that has screws on the underside of it which enables one to quickly screw the telescope onto the AZ3 alt-azimuth mount. I very much liked the fact that the dovetail plate has a rectangular block that also empowers the user with the option of mounting the telescope on a a variety of different tripods, such as my ever versatile Vixen Porta II mount. The telescope comes with a simple plastic dew cap that fits tightly onto the dew shield and so won’t fall off while transporting and storing the telescope. As usual, the dew cap has a 40mm stop cap.
The telescope objective is squeaky clean, with excellent multi-coatings applied to all surfaces of the air-spaced crown & flint objective lenses. These coatings look a llittle different to my older ShortTube 80 objective (also a SkyWatcher) suggesting that Synta are constantly experimenting with this important optical feature. Kudos to SkyWatcher for including these in the package, as normally one of the first things I recommend newcomers to the hobby do is to upgrade the ‘junk’ eyepieces that come with many starter ‘scopes. These will serve the user well and produce well corrected images of terrestrial or astronomical targets.
I got a genuine surprise when I took a look at the eyepieces supplied with the telescope package. In contrast to the cheaply made units (usually 25mm and 10mm) found in earlier offerings, the two new eyepieces are a considerable improvement. Both are genuine Plossl oculars in all-metal housings; a 26mm delivering a power of 15x and a 12.5mm unit which provides a power of 32x. Both have good anti-reflection coatings applied to all lens surfaces.
The only let down is the Barlow lens. The achromatic doublet appears to be totally uncoated and so will reduce contrast and increase the chances of internal reflections entering the optical train, somewhat negating any positive effects that usually attend the use of a well made Barlow lens. This is a pity, as these days it is not overly difficult to produce simple Barlows like this with decent anti-reflection coatings.
Nor was I overly enamoured by the big red dot finder which takes the place of a traditional finder ‘scope. I understand how this might be a novelty for a newcomer, being wooed by a ‘high’tech’ red dot projected onto a plastic screen. But in my experience, many will quickly tire of using the red dot finder, as it will only work for the brightest stars and/or the Moon and bright planets and is next to useless for finding fainter objects. I will suggest to them that they consider a small, conventional finder ‘scope with simple cross hairs that will greatly aid in the targeting of fainter objects. No batteries required for the latter either, which, in my experience, can often give up the ghost without warning during field use. I’ll need to rummage through my old box o’ tricks to see if I can give them one that fits the finder bracket on the main instrument.
The mount is good and solid, with a well-made extendable tripod. The AZ3 comes with two flexible azimuth and altitude control cables which do work well, though I’m not really a fan. I will suggest to them to try using it without these cables by unlocking the azimuth and altitude bolts, and allowing the telescope to move more freely and (in my opinion) intuitively. The large bolt locking the altitude adjuster should be kept tight when the telescope is pointed towards the zenith.
The mounting plate on the AZ3 allows the bolt to be moved back and forth to get the optimal balancing position for the telescope; a nice engineering touch, a small but helpful feature. You can actually adjust the pivot position while the scope is mounted simply by loosening the circular bolt under the mounting plate and sliding either backwards or forwards, as required.
Quick Optical Tests and Performance in the Field
Between 6.00 and 6.45pm local time on Saturday, March 2, I got a clear spell after an afternoon of heavy rain and high winds. And though it was still a bit blustery immediately before and after sunset, I got a short opportunity to see how well the telescope and mount performed. The first thing I quickly realised is that the mount will not work well without the flexible altitude slow motion control cable. The reason is simple; if the telescope is pointed high in the sky, the altitude bolt will not remain tight enough to keep the telescope in place. Not to worry; I just tightened up the altitude bolt and re-attached the flexible altitude slow motion cable to the mount, as shown above, and proceeded from there. I did however, keep the azimuth bolt loose in order to allow me to freely move the telescope from left to right.
Well, this strategy worked extremely well! I was able to track objects very easily and smoothly, even when a high power eyepiece(supplied by yours truly) was inserted in the diagonal. The mount is well matched to the size of the telescope and handles it flawlessly, even in blustery conditions. Objects snapped to focus and I was impressed by the nice, hard field stops on the two supplied Plossl eyepieces, which could still be seen in the deep twilight after sunset. I turned the telescope, charged with the 26mm Plossl, on the Pleiades, now sinking into the western sky, and was delighted to obtain a beautiful, sharp image of the entire cluster with plenty of room to spare. Stars focused down to tiny pinpoints against a pitch black sky. Next, I switched to the 12.5mm Plossl and took a look at the Double Cluster in Perseus; again I obtained a wonderful and sharply defined image of these magnificent open clusters, with excellent contrast. These eyepieces certainly deliver the readies with the 80mm f/5 achromatic.
As an additional test, I plonked in a 4.8mm T1 Nagler yielding 83x and turned it on Rigel(Beta Orionis), just past meridian passage in the south. Carefully focusing the telescope, I was delighted to see a sharply focused Airy disk with a mild amount of secondary spectrum surrounding it. With a concentrated gaze I was able to pick off its dim (magnitude 6.4) and close-in companion. Finally, by twisting the altitude slow motion control cable so that the telescope pointed higher in the sky, I arrived at Castor in Gemini, switching to the 26mm Plossl as a substitute for a proper finder(owing to its low power, wide-field perspective), and once centred, re-inserted the Nagler to see if the A and B components were resolved. No problem whatsoever! As I’ve reported umpteen times before, and despite significant opposition from forum individuals, this proved very easy for the humble Shortube 80. Indeed, in extensive field testing, my own ShortTube 80 resolves pairs right down to the theoretical limits imposed by its small aperture (~1.5″) There was no sign of pinched optics (which can occur with these scopes but which fortunately, is easy to cure) either, the stars remaining round as buttons, surrounded by a thin purplish chromatic fog.
I was satisfied that the telescope was performing as advertised!
All in all, I consider the entire package to be an exceptional value in today’s market. £134 buys you a decent telescope with two good eyepieces to get you started, as well as a solid but relatively lightweight alt-azimuth mount that is both easy to use even at high powers and easy to transport from a warm indoors to the garden. Indeed, as I have learned after many years of using the ShortTube 80, this instrument can show you a great deal if have a positive attitude and are willing to do the field work, thoroughly and consistently.
I think the family will be very happy with the results! When they pick up the instrument on Thursday next, I will advise them to use the altitude cable but to leave the azimuth cable in the box for more efficient slewing in field use. I also need to get them that finder ‘scope I have lying around!
And if, one day, they come calling to me to recommend a second ‘scope; you know, something bigger, more powerful and more serious, I will have no hesitation in pointing them firmly in the direction of the Newtonian reflector, provided of course, they are willing to learn how to get the most of these magnificent telescopes!
But that’s another story!
Neil English is author of several books in amateur astronomy. His next book will be dedicated to the venerable ShortTube 80, available in late 2019, God willing.